Yousuf El-Jayyousi, a junior engineering student at the University of Missouri, wanted guidance and reassurance that it would be safe to go back to school for the fall semester. He tuned into a pair of online town halls organized by the university hoping to find that.

He did not.

What he got instead from those town halls last month was encouragement to return to class at the institution affectionately known as Mizzou. The university, in Columbia, would be testing only people with symptoms, and at that point, the university said people who test positive off campus were under no obligation to inform the school.

“It feels like the university doesn’t really care whether we get sick or not,” said El-Jayyousi, who is scheduled for two in-person classes, and lives at home with his parents and 90-year-old grandmother.

He’s seen the studies from researchers at Yale and Harvard that suggest testing needs to be much more widespread. He asked his instructors if he could join lectures remotely once classes begin Monday. One was considering it; the other rejected it.

“It was kind of very dismissive, like ‘so what?’” El-Jayyousi said.

But it’s an enormous “so what?” packed with fear and unknowns for Jayyousi and some 20 million other students enrolled in some level of postsecondary education in America, if they are not already online only.

As with the uncoordinated and chaotic national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education has no clear guidance or set of standards to adhere to from the federal government or anywhere else. Policies for reentry onto campuses that were abruptly shut in March are all over the map.

University of Missouri engineering student Yousuf El-Jayyousi is worried about attending in-person classes because he lives at home with his parents and 90-year-old grandmother.(Sebastián Martínez Valdivia/KBIA)

Hundreds Undecided

According to the College Crisis Initiative, or C2i, a project of Davidson College that monitors how higher ed is responding to the pandemic, there is nothing resembling a common approach. Of 2,958 institutions it follows, 151 were planning to open fully online, 729 were mostly online and 433 were taking a hybrid approach. Just 75 schools were insisting on students attending fully in person, and 614 were aiming to be primarily in-person. Some 800 others were still deciding, just weeks before instruction was to start.

The decisions often have little correlation with the public health advisories in the region. Mizzou, which is in an area with recent COVID spikes, is holding some in-person instruction and has nearly 7,000 students signed up to live in dorms and other university-owned housing. Harvard, in a region with extremely low rates of viral spread, has opted to go all online and allowed students to defer a year.

The specific circumstances colleges and universities face are as much determined by local fiscal and political dictates as by medicine and epidemiology. It is often unclear who is making the call. So it’s every-student-for-herself to chart these unknown waters, even as students (or their families) have written tuition checks for tens of thousands of dollars and signed leases for campus and off-campus housing.

And the risks — health, educational and financial — boomerang back on individual students: Two weeks after University of North Carolina students, as instructed, returned to the flagship campus in Chapel Hill with the promise of at least some in-person learning, all classes went online. Early outbreaks surged from a few students to more than 130 in a matter of days. Most undergrads have about a week to clear out of their dorms.

“It’s really tough,” said neuroscience major Luke Lawless, 20. “Chapel Hill is an amazing place, and as a senior it’s tough to know that my time’s running out — and the virus only adds to that.”

Location, Location, Location

C2i’s creator, Davidson education Assistant Professor Chris Marsicano, said the extreme diversity of approaches comes from the sheer diversity of schools, the penchant of many to follow the leads of more prestigious peers, and local politics.

“Some states have very strong and stringent mask requirements. Some have stronger stay-at-home orders. Others are sort of leaving it up to localities. So the confluence of politics, institutional isomorphism — that imitation — and different needs that the institutions have are driving the differences,” Marsicano said.

Location matters a lot, too, Marsicano said, pointing to schools like George Washington University and Boston University in urban settings where the environment is beyond the control of the school, versus a place like the University of the South in remote, rural Sewanee, Tennessee, where 90% of students will return to campus.

“It’s a lot easier to control an outbreak if you are a fairly isolated college campus than if you are in the middle of a city,” Marsicano said.

Student behavior is another wild card, Marsicano said, since even the best plans will fail if college kids “do something stupid, like have a massive frat party without masks.”

“You’ve got student affairs professionals across the country who are screaming at the top of their lungs, ‘We can’t control student behavior when they go off campus’” Marsicano said.

Another factor is a vacuum at the federal level. Although the Department of Education says Secretary Betsy DeVos has held dozens of calls with governors and state education superintendents, there’s no sign of an attempt to offer unified guidance to colleges beyond a webpage that links to relaxed regulatory requirements and anodyne fact sheets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on preventing viral spread.

Even the money that the department notes it has dispensed — $30 billion from Congress’ CARES Act — is weighted toward K-12 schools, with about $13 billion for higher education, including student aid.

The U.S. Senate adjourned last week until Sept. 8, having never taken up a House-passed relief package that included some $30 billion for higher education. A trio of Democratic senators, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is calling for national reporting standards on college campuses.

A sign on the Francis Quadrangle at the University of Missouri in Columbia reminds students to maintain social distancing.(Sebastián Martínez Valdivia/KBIA)

No Benchmarks

Campus communities with very different levels of contagion are making opposite calls about in-person learning. Mizzou’s Boone County has seen more than 1,400 confirmed COVID cases after a spike in mid-July. According to the Harvard Global Health Institute’s COVID risk map, Boone has accelerated spread, with 14 infections per day per 100,000 people. The institute advises stay-at-home orders or rigorous testing and tracing at such rates of infection. Two neighboring counties were in the red zone recently, with more than 25 cases per day per 100,000 people. Mizzou has left it up to deans whether classes will meet in person, making a strong argument for face-to-face instruction.

Meanwhile, Columbia University in New York City opted for all online instruction, even though the rate of infection there is a comparatively low 3.8 cases per day per 100,000 people.

Administrators at Mizzou considered and rejected mandatory testing. “All that does is provide one a snapshot of the situation,” University of Missouri system President Mun Choi said in one of the town halls.

Mizzou has an in-house team that will carry out case investigation and contact tracing with the local health department. This week, following questions from the press and pressure from the public, the university announced students will be required to report any positive COVID test to the school.

Who Do You Test? When?

CDC guidance for higher education suggests there’s not enough data to know whether testing everyone is effective, but some influential researchers, such as those at Harvard and Yale, disagree.

“This virus is subject to silent spreading and asymptomatic spreading, and it’s very hard to play catch-up,” said Yale professor David Paltiel, who studies public health policy. “And so thinking that you can keep your campus safe by simply waiting until students develop symptoms before acting, I think, is a very dangerous game.”

Simulation models conducted by Paltiel and his colleagues show that, of all the factors university administrators can control — including the sensitivity and specificity of COVID-19 tests — the frequency of testing is most important.

He’s “painfully aware” that testing everyone on campus every few days sets a very high bar — logistically, financially, behaviorally — that may be beyond what most schools can reach. But he says the consequences of reopening campuses without those measures are severe, not just for students, but for vulnerable populations among school workers and in the surrounding community.

“You really have to ask yourself whether you have any business reopening if you’re not going to commit to an aggressive program of high-frequency testing,” he said.

The Fighting — And Testing — Illini

Some institutions that desperately want students to return to campus are backing the goal with a maximal approach to safety and testing.

About a four-hour drive east along the interstates from Mizzou is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose sports teams are known as the Fighting Illini.

Weeks ago, large white tents with signs reading “Walk-Up COVID-19 Testing” have popped up across campus; there students take a simple saliva test.

“This seems to be a lot easier than sticking a cotton swab up your nose,” graduate student Kristen Muñoz said after collecting a bit of her saliva in a plastic tube and sealing it in a bag labeled “Biohazard.”

In just a few hours, she got back her result: negative.

University of Illinois chemist Paul Hergenrother collects a saliva sample for a COVID-19 test he helped develop for the campus.(Christine Herman/Illinois Public Media)

The school plans to offer free tests to the 50,000 students expected to return this month, as well as some 11,000 faculty and staff members.

“The exciting thing is, because we can test up to 10,000 per day, it allows the scientist to do what’s really the best for trying to protect the community as opposed to having to cut corners, because of the limitations of the testing,” said University of Illinois chemist Martin Burke, who helped develop the campus’s saliva test, which received emergency use authorization from the federal Food and Drug Administration this week.

The test is similar to one designed by Yale and funded by the NBA that cleared the FDA hurdle just before the Illinois test. Both Yale and Illinois hope aggressive testing will allow most undergraduate students to live on campus, even though most classes will be online.

University of Illinois epidemiologist Becky Smith said they are following data that suggest campuses need to test everyone every few days because the virus is not detectable in infected people for three or four days.

“But about two days after that, your infectiousness peaks,” she said. “So, we have a very small window of time in which to catch people before they have done most of the infection that they’re going to be doing.”

Campus officials accepted Smith’s recommendation that all faculty, staffers and students participating in any on-campus activities be required to get tested twice a week.

Illinois can do that because its test is convenient and not invasive, which spares the campus from using as much personal protective equipment as the more invasive tests require, Burke said. And on-site analysis avoids backlogs at public health and commercial labs.

Muddled in the Middle

Most other colleges fall somewhere between the approaches of Mizzou and the University of Illinois, and many of their students still are uncertain how their fall semester will go.

At the University of Southern California, a private campus of about 48,500 students in Los Angeles, officials had hoped to have about 20% of classes in person — but the county government scaled that back, insisting on tougher rules for reopening than the statewide standards.

If students eventually are allowed back, they will have to show a recent coronavirus test result that they obtained on their own, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer of USC Student Health.

They will be asked to do daily health assessments, such as fever checks, and those who have been exposed to the virus or show symptoms will receive a rapid test, with about a 24-hour turnaround through the university medical center’s lab. “We believe it is really important to have very rapid access to those results,” Van Orman said.

At California State University — the nation’s largest four-year system, with 23 campuses and nearly a half-million students — officials decided back in May to move nearly all its fall courses online.

“The first priority was really the health and safety of all of the campus community,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, spokesperson for the CSU Chancellor’s Office. About 10% of CSU students are expected to attend some in-person classes, such as nursing lab courses, fine art and dance classes, and some graduate classes.

Uhlenkamp said testing protocols are being left up to each campus, though all are required to follow local safety guidelines. And without a medical campus in the system, CSU campuses do not have the same capacity to take charge of their own testing, as the University of Illinois is doing.

For students who know they won’t be on campus this fall, there is regret at lost social experiences, networking and hands-on learning so important to college.

But the certainty also brings relief.

“I don’t think I would want to be indoors with a group of, you know, even just a handful of people, even if we have masks on,” said Haley Gray, a 28-year-old graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley starting the second year of her journalism program.

She knows she won’t have access to Berkeley’s advanced media labs or the collaborative sessions students experience there. And she said she realized the other day she probably won’t just sit around the student lounge and strike up unexpected friendships.

“That’s a pretty big bummer but, you know, I think overall we’re all just doing our best, and given the circumstances, I feel pretty OK about it,” she said.

This story is part of a partnership that includes KBIA, Illinois Public Media, Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Related Topics

California Public Health States