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Students' mass migration back to college gets a failing grade

By Victoria Knight, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

Who thought it would be a good idea to move thousands of teenagers and young adults across the country to college campuses, where, unencumbered by parental supervision, many college kids did what college kids do?

Actually, Nigel Goldenfeld and Sergei Maslov, two University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign physics researchers, thought they had it figured out. They created a predictive model for the campus, which showed that with a robust, twice-a-week testing program for students, faculty and staff who are regularly on campus, a mask mandate and an app for contact tracing, COVID-19 cases could be kept below 500 people for the whole semester. They even accounted for close interactions among college students.

But that model failed to take into account that kids who test positive for the virus, whether sick or asymptomatic, might continue to party. From Aug. 16, when campus reopened, to Sept. 14, more than 1,900 new cases of COVID-19 were detected, according to the university's COVID-19 dashboard. One thousand cases occurred in the first two weeks of the fall semester.

"What is not in the models is that students will actually fail to isolate," said Goldenfeld during a Sept. 2 press briefing, "that they would go to a party even if they knew they were COVID-positive or that they would host a party while they were COVID-positive. ... We didn't include that behavior in the model."

Many other colleges across the country also thought through how to bring students back to campus. Several schools looked at computer models to see how COVID-19 would affect students and staff. But, as with the plan developed at Illinois, these models were sometimes based on a set of assumptions that ended up being wrong. In other cases, models that showed what could happen without mitigation strategies were ignored by university administrators, who went forward with plans to bring students back.

Either way, the great student migration has resulted in COVID-19 outbreaks on college campuses nationwide. The University of Central Florida: 378 cases since the week ending Aug. 8. Texas Christian University: 600 cases in August and 220 in September so far. The University of Iowa: 1,804 cases from Aug. 18 to Sept. 11. The University of South Carolina: 2,185 cases since Aug. 1. Making matters worse, some afflicted schools are setting off a second student migration by sending their students back home.


The administration of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign asked students to lock down for two weeks on Sept. 2. And Goldenfeld said during a Sept. 2 news conference that it was too early for him to make a new prediction whether COVID-19 cases could be kept under control for the semester.

He said he and Maslov would adjust their model but were waiting to see how students would respond to the lockdown. Cases of COVID-19 on campus declined since the implementation of the lockdown, which was lifted Sept. 16.

The administration of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has collaborated directly with Goldenfeld and Maslov, and has been transparent about the model on which it is basing its decisions. Other universities haven't been as upfront.

After hearing that Penn State planned to open again for the fall, a concerned faculty group, Coalition for a Just University, created a model predicting what COVID-19 spread would look like at the University Park campus in State College, Pennsylvania. The coalition's modeling group, composed of engineering and science faculty, chose to remain anonymous, fearing retribution from the university. Its predictive model showed that more than 1,800 students could become sick and two could die of COVID-19 during the semester if only 1% of students were tested each day, which is Penn State's plan. Since Aug. 28, 1,100 students at the University Park campus (attended by some 47,000 students total) have tested positive for COVID-19.


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