Why managing risk—and panic—is key to keeping colleges open

'Bringing young people together in small a footprint, you will get infections—that’s not the problem'
By: | June 22, 2020
At a reopened university of 40,000 students, coronavirus this fall could cause 75 to 250 hospitalizations and 5 to 20 deaths, says one expert in data-driven risk management. (GettyImages/kzenon)At a reopened university of 40,000 students, coronavirus this fall could cause 75 to 250 hospitalizations and 5 to 20 deaths, says one expert in data-driven risk management. (GettyImages/kzenon)

To open campuses—and keep them open throughout the fall—college administrators must assess risks beyond the potential spread of coronavirus.

Many schools plan extensive testing and contact tracing. But campus leaders must also know the ability of local health systems to contend with an outbreak and also be able to prevent panic if—and more likely, when—infections are diagnosed, says Sheldon H. Jacobson, a founder professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an expert in data-driven risk assessment.

“Bringing young people together in small a footprint, you will get infections—that’s not the problem,” Jacobson says. “If you look at risk as only the number of infections, it will be impossible to have in-person instruction,”

The risk of serious illness is low for college-age students who do not have a pre-existing health condition. At a school of 40,000 students, therefore, coronavirus could cause 75 to 250 hospitalizations, Jacobson says.


More from UB: 6 snapshots of how colleges and universities plan to reopen safely


So, administrators will have a better picture of their ability to manage COVID if they know local hospitals have a sufficient number of ICU beds and respirators. Also, administrators can allow medically vulnerable students and faculty to continue with online learning.

Faculty over the age of 65 can also teach an in-person class remotely, Jacobson suggests.

Risks of returning to online learning

Schools that reopen will likely see clusters of cases around mid-September, if not earlier, and the key to keeping a campus open will be tolerating that risk and putting any outbreaks into context, Jacobson says.

For example, if a small percentage of the campus population has fallen ill and infected individuals can be isolated, administrators should be able to continue with in-person instruction.

“By the end of September, a large number of universities may panic and go back o online. This would be the worst thing to do,” Jacobson says. “Students, faculty and alumni are not going to like it, and then you’ve started to threaten the integrity of the entire institution.”


More from UB: What one large campus learned when it began coronavirus testing


Administrators can plan for the worst but avoid the temptation to expect it. Based on data, that may occur to only a fraction—say 25 to 50—of the nation’s approximately 5,000 colleges and universities, Jacobson says.

Campus leaders should, therefore, focus on what they control, he suggests.

“We can’t control 18-t0-22-year-olds socializing but we can control the resources in our health care system has to support a community,” Jacobson says. “Students are paying for in-person education and if only give them only online, you’re challenging the model of higher education, which will have repercussions beyond COVID-19.”

Collaborating around COVID is crucial

Higher ed will weather the COVID storm more effectively if they are willing to collaborate around their successes and failures as they deal with coronavirus this fall.

For instance, if one school’s approach to social distancing in the dining hall doesn’t work, Jacobson hopes leaders will share their experience before other campuses make the same mistake.

He also hopes a formal mechanism is created for administrators to discuss coronavirus-related challenges.

“There is a narrow path to success and someone is going to discover it,” Jacobson says. “If they share it and other universities follow, we’re going to be in a much better state come January. If we’re more closed and less cooperative, there are going to be disasters on campuses, the impalctions of which will last fall longer than this virus.”


UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.