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Duke University schools the country on how to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Duke University is sometimes referred to as a pretty good knock-off of fancier schools farther north. But while those ivy-clad universities with smart students, prestigious medical schools and big endowments stayed closed this fall, Duke invited its freshmen, sophomores, some upperclassmen and all of its graduate students to its Durham, North Carolina, campus for largely in-person classes.

Now, it's schooling those sniffier schools on how to reopen safely.

Starting Aug. 2 and continuing up to this week, when the Duke campus made a pre-planned reversion to online classes for the remainder of the semester, the university implemented a rigorous testing, tracking and surveillance program for more than 10,000 students. And it has carried out, on a grand scale, an innovative scheme — called pooled testing — that can stretch limited testing resources without forfeiting accuracy or resolution.

For Duke's returning students, the result has been a relatively safe and almost normal return to learning, at a time when other colleges and universities either shuttered their campuses or ignited community outbreaks as they reopened with scant measures in place to detect or isolate infected students.

At Duke, students lived together on-campus and off, mingled in dorms and attended classes and labs. There were football games (Duke athletes were tested and monitored in a separate program). Fraternities and sororities continued to operate. And on a few occasions, students partied like it was 1999.

When there were outbreaks, they were nipped in the bud. The surrounding community of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina was protected from 17 infected students — nine of them entirely free of symptoms — who arrived in their midst from far-flung homes. And extensive contact tracing found that class attendance was not linked to even a single case of coronavirus transmission.


"Duke has done an exceptional job compared to other institutions, and has been very quiet about it," said Christopher Marsicano, director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, in Davidson North Carolina. "It's one of the few institutions in what we call the Ivy Plus that decided to have in-person classes. It deserves credit for stepping up and being an innovator here, and keeping its cases down."

As the United States enters a new and deadly phase of the pandemic, colleges and universities are caught up in whirlwind. Even as they approach decisions about whether and how to reopen for spring semester, many are responding to the pandemic's new spike by closing campuses and sending students home earlier than anticipated.

Just as students turned many college towns into coronavirus hotspots in the fall, there is concern that students sent home without being tested first will accelerate outbreaks as they're summarily sent home to their families.

If the nation's universities want to learn what Duke did right, they can turn to a detailed report published this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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