Michael J. Sorrell: Colleges that reopen are deluding themselves
Whether our campuses should even reopen was a contentious subject, but we committed to finding a way to safely resume classes. A large majority of our more than 87,000 students, we reasoned, would be living in our campuses’ host communities, regardless of whether the university reopened its dorms. Students would be present—and would be likely to socialize—no matter what we did. We aimed for a mix of virtual and in-person instruction, partly on the theory that masked, widely spaced face-to-face interactions would satisfy some of the students’ appetite for normalcy and offer a better educational experience than fully remote learning.
To meet these goals, we needed to prepare our health-care system to diagnose COVID-19 cases and care for those who tested positive. At the time, getting a coronavirus test was incredibly difficult, even for people who were quite sick. With the help of IU’s school of medicine and its partner health-care system, we developed a mechanism where any of our approximately 120,000 students, faculty, and staff could get a virtual visit with a health-care professional if they felt ill. If symptoms warranted, this process then connected them to a diagnostic test.
Diagnosing individual COVID-19 patients was just the first step. We also needed procedures and infrastructure to allow them to isolate, and intense contact tracing to identify and assist anyone else who might have been exposed. These measures required money and significant personnel, neither of which was widely available from the federal or state government. But our school had an advantage: Through a partnership with medical educators and government officials in Kenya, many of our local faculty and staff had gained expertise in health-care initiatives requiring substantial community outreach. With their help, we hired and trained a corps of contact tracers. Early in the pandemic, I had marveled at how Singapore had a goal of tracking down the source of each identified COVID-19 infection within two hours. In the fall, IU’s median time to close a case was half of that.
In June, while most of the country could not manage to supply enough tests for people with COVID-19 symptoms, researchers at Cornell released a paper outlining a scheme of frequent testing of asymptomatic people. They believed that if their university tested a large number of people often enough, being part of the Cornell community could become safer than not being part of it. In other words, far from posing a risk to its host city or town, a university could become—by supplementing behavioral measures such as masking and social distancing with widespread surveillance testing—a model for detecting and suppressing the virus.
This was a vital insight. Other studies produced similar findings. At IU, we set a goal of creating a safer environment for students, faculty, and staff on and around campus than they would experience if the university simply shut down. Unfortunately, by August and well into the fall, testing capacity was still limited. No infrastructure existed to test those without COVID-19 symptoms, and we did not want to be a burden on our host communities by co-opting resources—including medical capacity—that might otherwise be used for those who were ill.