In a bid for preparedness and pandemic innovation, Colgate University in Hamilton, New York decided not to wait for COVID-19 cases to start circulating on campus. Instead, it eradicated the threat by quarantining 2,700 students when they arrived for school. The mandatory two-week quarantine ended on September 8, creating the first campus to be nearly free of coronavirus.
“The best science to date tells us that, in conjunction with a robust testing protocol, a universal arrival quarantine with a single end date offers the greatest possibility to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak on campus or in Hamilton,”Colgate’s college site states.
“A universal mandatory quarantine is also the only possible way of permitting students from advisory states and students from non-advisory states to cohabitate with one another.”
How Colgate University Killed COVID Cases
When the school decided to go for a complete reopening, it knew it had some advantages in place. Colgate is located in Hamilton, New York, a tiny “hamlet” surrounded by bucolic farms about 90 minutes outside Syracuse. Its remote location and hilltop campus make it perfect for isolating from a pandemic.
Colgate’s testing schedule was extensive:
- Students were tested before arriving on campus
- Students were tested again upon arrival
- Students were tested a third time halfway through the two-week quarantine
Out of the 2700 returning students, 37 tested positive for the virus; all were asymptomatic. Those students were removed from campus and isolated in a specific building. There are currently 14 positive cases left as the virus clears.
In addition to very strict quarantine guidelines (face to face only with roommates or suitemates, meals delivered, limited and strictly distanced outdoor time), Colgate President Brian Casey joined the students in the dorm in a show of solidarity. He found the experience both necessary and informative. “It was more joyful than I thought it was going to be,” Casey admitted on CNN.
“We knew going into the universal quarantine for all of our students that it was going to be difficult, and would require a shared sacrifice for the greater good on campus,” Casey tells Parentology. “We aimed to bring our students and faculty together, to be part of a residential academic community. That is our essential mission and we wanted to achieve that.”
Now that the initial quarantine is over, the campus moves through “Gates,” each lasting two weeks if no outbreaks occur. They are currently in Gate 1, which allows more freedom of movement and outdoor time. Much of the progress depends upon student adherence to a Pledge to Public Health which each of them signed. Violation means an immediate trip home.
And students have been sent home for breaking rules. “On the second night, a small party occurred,” Casey told CNN. It was, ironically, on Casey’s dorm floor. The ousted students then learn remotely and their room and board is refunded.
The school’s goal of Gate 3 is the “new normal.” That still means masks, social distancing, gatherings of no more than 50, and no socializing in dorm rooms.
Keeping Campus Safe Is Expensive
Colgate invested about $4 million dollars in its pandemic efforts. The costliest feature is the most innovative: a wastewater testing system connected to each residence hall. A baseline for viral levels in the wastewater was established in the first quarantine week, and testing is then ongoing. If viral levels rise in the wastewater coming from a specific hall, for instance, the school knows there’s disease present there and can test, identify, and trace very efficiently.
Random testing of students and faculty is conducted weekly, giving the school a batch sample of infection. All these precautions are tightly controlled; and the students understand the part they need to play to keep their school–and one another–safe.
“We can only do this if we all do it together, and the benefits will be remarkable,” Casey says.
Casey acknowledged that a wealthier private college like Colgate has these options available. Even so, pulling this off took a lot of juggling and shuffling of resources.
Another small, private college, Colby College, has spent lots of time and money on an expansive student testing regime as well. Its policy requires everyone on campus, over 2000 people, to be tested three times a week at the start of the semester. After that, everyone tests twice weekly until the semester ends. According to the Washington Post, that’s 85,000 tests (a projected cost of about 2.5 million dollars).
Colby, as of September 12, had only had eight positive cases.
Outbreaks at Other Colleges
The pandemic outbreak track record for reopening colleges hasn’t been stellar. Many schools required testing initially, but then opened completely. Without controlling individual behavior, outbreaks began almost immediately.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, for instance, had a great testing regime. But, parties spiked cases. Within two weeks of opening, there were over 700 positive cases. At that rate, the school of 50,000 students could see upwards of 8,000 infections. It headed into lockdown last week.
Another school, Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, has only 2000 students. That should be an easy number to control, but its Greek life and parties began with a vengeance; now it’s in lockdown as well.
And Bradley College in Peoria sent 6000 students into lockdown.
The CDC hasn’t recommended universal lockdowns for college campuses, saying that there are too many differences in colleges, from size to location, to justify a blanket recommendation. But the alternative, of voluntary testing and little oversight of behaviors, seems to lead to eventual lockdowns and outbreak chasing anyway.
“The CDC’s rationale for inaction is akin to observing that seat belts save lives in Cleveland but refusing to recommend them in Cincinnati because that’s a different city and ‘you never know,’ ” Carl T. Bergstrom, a biology professor at the University of Washington, wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Strong School Spirit Helps
Colgate is a small and tight-knit school; spirit and alumni support is legendary. One returning student, Sophie, ‘23, is all in on the efforts.
“I feel thankful and proud to be attending Colgate right now. So many schools were either careless, which will not be sustainable, or just went online for the semester. I would not have wanted to be at a school that took either of those paths,” Sophie tells Parentology. “I think that Colgate has done a fabulous job of allowing us to get back into the classroom, I personally have 3 in-person classes, and getting to attend those classes in person is what I find to be the most important right now.”
Although she found some of the restrictions challenging (being a fussy eater doesn’t make restricted meal choices easy), she’s confident that the student body, and Colgate’s plan, will prevail.
“I am optimistic that the school will get to Gate 3 in six weeks because as we are reopening the cases are not spiking. I do not think that COVID has spread around our campus, and I think Colgate did an amazing job finding the cases and isolating them. As long as no one leaves the “bubble” I do not see how the virus could get onto campus and spread enough to stop our reopening plan,” Sophie says.
President Casey thinks the efforts have had an ultimately positive effect, one that reflects both the ethos of the school and a life lesson about shared sacrifice and responsibility.
“Perhaps what we didn’t realize at the time was that the notion of service to the common good would become the important lesson of this time, and that it could be something taught, or at least conveyed. There’s no national conversation right now about self-sacrifice for the common good, and by working together to be together on campus, I hope we’ve shown our students the benefits—even the necessity— of coming together for a shared cause. So far, the outcome, in terms of safety and in terms of culture, has been remarkable,” Casey says.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer has a current student attending Colgate University. The student quoted is not related to the writer.