Despite communitywide COVID-19 surge, colleges have kept virus under control on campuses

COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES across Rhode Island, including Roger Williams University, pictured, have overall kept COVID-19 under control on their campuses during the fall semester despite the growing community-wide surge. / COURTESY ROGER WILLIAMS UNIVERSITY
COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES across Rhode Island, including Roger Williams University, pictured, have overall kept COVID-19 under control on their campuses during the fall semester despite the growing communitywide surge. / COURTESY ROGER WILLIAMS UNIVERSITY

PROVIDENCE – As college students across Rhode Island are preparing for their fall semester final exams, local colleges have generally passed one very important test over the last three months: keeping COVID-19 under control on campus.

The coronavirus pandemic is currently engulfing the Ocean State and the country, with record-high daily positive-case counts dwarfing the spring outbreak that forced everyone, including businesses, to stay home. However, local colleges, which switched to online learning and closed in-person activity on campus back in April, managed to minimize the virus’s impact on their respective campuses this fall even with the recent surge.

According to data from the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island, which represents the state’s eight private colleges, there were 686 positive cases of COVID-19 identified out of the 326,998 combined total tests done by the eight private colleges between Aug. 1 through Tuesday. AICU Rhode Island represents Bryant University, Salve Regina University, Providence College, New England Institute of Technology, Roger Williams University, Brown University, Johnson & Wales University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Additionally, the University of Rhode Island identified 415 COVID-19 cases on campus out of 40,821 tests conducted from Labor Day – Sept. 7 – through Nov. 15, according to information on the university’s COVID-19 data portal.

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In total, 1,101 COVID-19 cases were identified on the combined nine college campuses out of 367,998 total combined tests from Aug. 1 through Tuesday – an 0.29% positive test rate. Therefore, approximately 1 in 3 COVID-19 tests performed in the state during that period were done by colleges, and the positive-case count on college campuses represents just 3.9% of the 28,672 total cumulative cases identified across the state in that period.

“I think it’s a testament to the hard work and planning that folks on the campuses put together for six months,” AICU Rhode Island President Daniel P. Egan told Providence Business News Nov. 16. “It’s also a testament to the resources and funding the schools committed. They’ve committed to keeping their students safe, their faculty safe and the community around them safe. It’s nothing but a success.”

There were also 115 additional positive cases in individuals who are associated with the eight AICU Rhode Island member colleges, but those cases were confirmed through off-campus testing, Egan said.

R.I. Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said Tuesday in an email that colleges and universities have been “great partners” with the health department with testing, following up with contact tracing and quarantining.

“This partnership assisted in quick and efficient response to cluster outbreaks and the low incidence of cases as we finish the semester,” Wendelken said.

Brown University, where university President Christina H. Paxson made a national plea back in April that reopening colleges in the fall should be a priority, performed 105,227 tests between Labor Day and last week, identifying only 86 total cases on the Ivy League campus in that stretch.

“The positivity rate has been very, very low, and we’re happy about that,” Brown spokesperson Brian Clark said Tuesday. Clark did say that Brown has seen a “recent uptick” in positive cases on campus, but it’s also been in concert with the surge in cases locally and nationally and the positivity rate on the campus is still microscopic comparatively.

Along with testing students twice a week and putting forth a public health campaign on campus, Clark said Brown has done several initiatives, including creating a trimester academic schedule, to de-densify the campus that helped “a lot.”

“There were fewer people here on campus to begin with, and also a lot of it comes down to personnel decision-making,” Clark said.

Providence College, which had in September an outbreak with mostly off-campus students contracting COVID-19 that forced the college to temporarily switch to online learning for a few weeks, only had 84 total cases on campus from Oct. 4 through Nov. 16, the portal shows. The figure is a stark contrast to when the college had about 120 cases in a three-day period in September that forced the temporary campus shutdown.

Even with the outbreak, PC had 287 total cases, per PC’s COVID-19 data portal, out of 35,407 tests between Labor Day and Nov. 15, a positive-test rate of 0.08%. Wendelken said PC worked well with RIDOH implementing the department’s recommended strategies to stop the outbreak, including doing extensive weekend testing of students for four weeks and the college implementing a stay-at-home order – only going to and from classes on campus – for several weeks.

“These swift measures were critical [in stopping the outbreak],” Wendelken said.

Roger Williams University Chief of Staff Brian Williams, who saw his campus record just a 0.16% COVID-19 positivity rate, said Tuesday compliance in the campus community also factored in coronavirus being under control at the Bristol-based university, along with frequent testing.

“Mask-wearing on campus at all times, keeping distance from people. And, when asked to isolate or quarantine because they were near someone who tested positive, the overall cooperation has been outstanding,” Williams said.

While cases are rising now in the state, most colleges won’t be really impacted if there is a shutdown in the near term as students will be on their winter breaks after early December, with spring semesters not starting until late January or, in RWU’s case, Feb. 1, to get past the winter flu season.

However, concerns do linger. Williams said “a lot” can play out over the next two months with the recent surge and how that will impact colleges bringing students back on campus. If RWU has to stay remote for a full semester, it may have an impact on any fiscal decisions it would have to make, Williams said.

PC President Rev. Kenneth R. Sicard told PBN Nov. 13 that the college, if it had to go full remote learning and not have anyone on campus, would lose about $1.5 million per week in room and board.

The AICU Rhode Island member colleges, which Egan said have spent a combined $50 million in testing and reopening costs, also have not received reimbursement from the $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding the state received in April. According to AICU Rhode Island, Rhode Island is one of two New England states – Maine the other – where colleges have not received CARES Act funding from state government. Colleges in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Connecticut received a combined $27.2 million in CARES Act funding from their respective governments, AICU Rhode Island said.

Egan previously told PBN that colleges in the state stand to lose at least $200 million if stimulus assistance does not arrive. The state, as of Sept. 30, has approximately $900 million in CARES Act funding still unspent and it needs to be spent by Dec. 30 or risk losing it.

Along with the financial aspect in hoping campuses stay open, college officials also say there is a mental-health element for students in wanting to have as normal of a college experience as possible.

“When our students who were on campus last spring and went home, they know what was taken away,” Williams said. “Even with restrictions, our students … want in-person learning for their mental health and learning process. That’s better than the alternative.”

When asked if colleges could be potentially exempt from a possible stay-at-home order issued by the state and allow on-campus learning to continue given COVID-19 cases have been low on campuses, Wendelken said he is “not sure yet” about it.

Egan also said the value of young adults receiving an education in person at colleges is the same as the value of K-12 students having in-person learning in local schools. Gov. Gina M. Raimondo has publicly emphasized since the summer the importance of having students in local schools be in class in person, citing it is safer for students to be at the school learning than at home even as cases rise across the state.

“We, like the governor, have a goal to try and achieve that. It is in our fiscal best interest to do that, but it is also more importantly in our students best interest to get them back into a residence life in college living and, to some degree, getting back to normal while taking all precautions to fight the virus. We’ve shown a pathway that we can do this safely,” Egan said. “That is our goal [to keep campuses open], but we would obviously work with government officials to make those decisions.”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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