Christmas is coming early this year for students at Indiana University in the US, who will be tested for coronavirus, go home for the Thanksgiving holiday and then not return to campus until the start of 2021.
In-person teaching will end and any students who test positive will be kept at university to avoid them infecting relatives. “Testing will be the key . . . and then we will be teaching completely online until the next semester, when we will test them on return,” said Michael McRobbie, the institution’s president.
The approach, which relies on private testing, is one of many being adopted in educational institutions around the world as administrators struggle to balance limited understanding of the infection, uncertain guidance and squeezed resources with a desire for safety while maintaining operations as fully as possible. In countries such as the UK, officials are unveiling plans for large-scale testing ahead of students travelling home for the festive period.
While institutions across much of Asia — where Covid-19 cases are more under control — are stepping up face-to-face teaching, their counterparts in Europe and North America are introducing tougher restrictions as infections surge and governments impose national lockdowns.
They face lack of clear scientific consensus or advice from public health agencies on how best to respond and different levels of support for testing. “There is a lack of guidelines. Each university has its own protocol and there has been lots of trial and error,” said Santiago Iñiguez De Onzoño, president of IE business school in Madrid, which conducts regular tests and temperature checks on students.
In the UK, the University and College Union of academics and non-teaching staff is suing to push campuses to move entirely to online learning to reduce infection risks. But fresh government guidance supports continued face-to-face lessons when possible — an approach supported by some students and academics, who argue it provides better quality education.
“For most of us learning is a social thing — we want to learn alongside other people,” said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank.
“Academics like, in general, being in the presence of the people they’re educating . . . and although you can do good online learning, face to face remains students’ first preference. Nobody made them come back but they wanted to.”
The evidence on the risks of in-person study is mixed. While significant outbreaks have happened on campuses, that partly reflects the higher levels of testing taking place at some universities compared with the wider community.
The virus has also spread more broadly among people in their teens and twenties than in other age groups, regardless of whether they are students. Most transmission appears to be taking place in bars, clubs and at parties, not in classrooms. And for the vast number in that age group, the severity of infections is also low.
“Transmissions are happening at the margins of the campus,” said Paul Greatrix, registrar at Nottingham University, which had a large outbreak this term. “Teaching spaces are as Covid-secure as they can be. It’s really tough — we cannot lock people down. It’s very difficult to police, and off campus it’s next to impossible.”
Efforts to control extracurricular student activities are even more difficult for non-residential colleges, where people typically study close to home and live with their families or in private rented accommodation.
Martin Andersen, a health economist at the University of North Carolina, says one difficulty for researchers is a lack of data. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not providing systematic test results from universities. “We’re stuck piecing together information from crowdsourced systems,” he said.
But he has studied test results in census districts close to some campuses that show the “scary outcome” of spread from students — notably those from other areas of the country with high transmission rates — when they arrive on campus and then pass the virus into surrounding neighbourhoods.
“CDC has been less than useless” in sharing data on university transmission, according to David Paltiel, a professor at Yale School of Public Health, but wider studies have revealed the significant role of young people — often without symptoms — in spreading coronavirus.
His research argues for widespread, frequent rapid testing on campuses, and isolation of infected students. But while some colleges such as Harvard have the funding or laboratory facilities to oversee ambitious testing programmes, “a large number of schools have been given a free pass and [done] nothing”.
In the UK, Hannah Christensen at Bristol Medical School said the data suggested that students do have more contacts with others than those of the same age group not attending university, so present a greater transmission risk.
She argued in a study modelling different outcomes that onwards transmission to family members is likely unless universities introduce a mix of reduced face-to-face teaching, limiting student mixing and enhanced testing.
But, like other researchers, she said she was opposed to shutting down campuses. “On balance, I think a university experience is really important for students. For some, studying at home is not an option: they don’t have the home life or the infrastructure to support good learning.”
But the coming Christmas period presents a huge challenge for university officials. For Prof Paltiel, that means intensifying testing and isolation for students in the coming weeks. “The last thing we want is to be sending little ticking timebombs home for Thanksgiving,” he said.