As COVID-19 outbreaks arise, colleges move swiftly to online learning

La Salle among those making temporary transition to virtual.
By: | September 7, 2021
Photo courtesy of Duke University

Despite a nearly 85% vaccination rate on its campus in Philadelphia, La Salle University this weekend announced it would take all of its classes online through Friday because of an outbreak of positive COVID-19 cases.

La Salle saw its case count rise from five on Friday to 47 on Sunday, with a mix of both residential (18) and non-residential students (28) causing the increase. One employee also is among those who tested positive. Because of Labor Day and social gatherings, there is concern about spikes at La Salle and institutions across the country.

“As we have seen nationally, colleges and universities remain susceptible to COVID-19, even in spite of a high vaccination rate,” Interim President Tim O’Shaughnessy wrote to the La Salle community. “We have experienced a concentrated increase of positive cases within the last 48 hours and, coupled with the high travel volume of the holiday weekend, immediate action is required in order to maintain the wellness of our students, faculty, and staff.”

While the majority of institutions continue to operate “near normal” to start the fall semester, there are some that have had to shut down at least portions of their campuses and classrooms. Liberty University in Virginia, with few mitigation strategies in place, was hard hit by positive cases and had to shift to online through Friday, too. (Despite a campus quarantine, it still hosted a football game last weekend filled with students and fans.) Rice University in Houston delayed the start of face-to-face instruction because of high COVID numbers, and the University of Dallas moved to remote learning last Thursday after an outbreak last week.

A similar trend occurred last year when students returned en masse from summer breaks. Amid soaring surges in cases, colleges were forced to go virtual, an experiment that was hit or miss at the start but became more viable as the year progressed. Though colleges have expressed the desire for more in-person learning, those experiences have afforded them the opportunity to pivot quickly to remote environments, even if it is only for a few days to assess the severity of outbreaks and prevent new ones from occurring.

“The rapidity of the spread was swift, exhausting our reserve of rooms for isolation very quickly,” University of Dallas President Jonathan Sanford said. “We applied similar pauses twice last year and both times did so when there were fewer positive cases than we currently have; both times we were able to contain the number of positive cases to the point at which we had adequate space on campus for isolating COVID-positive students. I have every expectation that this will work again.”

Two differences make 2021-22 decision-making far different than last year. One is the potential impact the more contagious and aggressive delta variant might have on students and campus operations. The other is that at many institutions the majority of students are vaccinated, providing a likely cushion against the harshest impacts of the virus and its variants.

Social gatherings, however, remain a concern for public health officials, particularly like those that played out last weekend at football stadiums, where hundreds of thousands of revelers cheered on their teams with no social distancing or masking. The University of Georgia posted one of the school’s best wins in a decade, dropping Clemson 10-3. But coach Kirby Smart was thinking about the potential impacts of COVID-19 in a press conference Monday. Georgia’s director of sports medicine and its physical therapist have tested positive, along with a number of players.

“It’s at the highest we’ve seen since fall camp right now, and I think that there is this relief that you guys feel like, ‘Oh well, everything is back to normal,’ when it’s really just not for us right now,” Smart said.

A breaking point?

Semester breaks also are worth watching closely. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted how quickly COVID-19 spread among students at the University of Chicago who had traveled during Spring Break. Researchers also noted an unusual pattern—that the most prevalent cases involved the Mexico variant, one that had not been seen a lot in the area before the outbreak occurred.

Despite the robust vaccinations at La Salle, O’Shaughnessy warned his community about the importance of remaining vigilant: distancing, practicing good hygiene and masking. “It’s easy to let the change of season sway you to believe your symptoms are mere allergies,” he said. “It’s important not to brush off even the mildest of symptoms.”

Duke University knows all too well the importance of increasing safety protocols. It had its worst week since the pandemic began in late August with a total of 364 cases. And this despite the fact that around 95% of its campus has been vaccinated. After suspending dining hall gatherings, requiring masks inside and outside, and allowing faculty to transition to remote learning for a period of two weeks, case numbers fell by one-half. A short drive down to South Carolina—where COVID case counts are raging—Trident Technical College took their concern to the next level, moving all courses online through Sept. 19.

“The College has implemented multiple measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, however, the increasing number of COVID-19 cases—both on our campuses and in our community—has made it apparent that we must take additional steps to protect the campus community and to ensure instruction can continue,” President Dr. Mary Thornley wrote.

Similarly, Eastern Gateway Community shifted to virtual learning today because of what President Michael Geoghegan called “troubling” COVID case numbers. Another two-year institution in a state with low vaccine numbers, Southwest Tennessee Community College, also has gone virtual.

One of the potential ways to keep in-person learning going is by implementing a strategy that worked last year: frequent testing of all individuals on campus. Dartmouth College is one of those requiring students and employees, regardless of vaccination status, to undergo once-per-week tests.