Megan Walton would be the first to admit this semester has been hard.
Maybe things are difficult because it’s her junior year — notoriously the most difficult one — or because she’s busy as a student athlete in addition to her job as a vice president for the Student Government Association. Maybe it’s because it’s midterms season. Oh yeah, and there’s a pandemic still happening.
Walton goes to Western Colorado University, which has had a total of seven confirmed coronavirus cases among its campus population. The roughly 2,700-student university is in Gunnison, where case counts have stayed generally low after the county initially shut down in March.
As a result, only 14% of Western’s classes are entirely online for the fall. Just two of Walton’s classes are virtual, with the rest either fully or partially in person. She says she learns best with in-person classes and really struggled when the campus had to shut down at the start of the pandemic.
“When you’ve been learning that way for so long, it’s hard to make the change to just looking at a computer screen and getting everything you need from that,” Walton said.
As Colorado’s colleges and universities announce their plans for the spring semester, students and administrators are looking back on the fall, the first full school term since the coronavirus pandemic started, and hoping to learn from their successes and mistakes.
Across the nation — and across Colorado — some institutions have fared better than others. As of Monday, the Colorado campus with the most cases since the pandemic began in March — the University of Colorado Boulder, at 1,806 — pales in comparison to the 4,082 cases at Clemson University in South Carolina, or the University of Georgia’s 4,049 cases, or 3,634 at University of Florida. Clemson University has almost 20,000 students, University of Georgia has about 30,000 students, and University of Florida has almost 35,000 students. The University of Colorado Boulder has about 35,000 students this year.
Larger colleges like CU Boulder are expected to have more cases, in part due to their dorms and other group living situations like Greek houses, according to Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. This isn’t unique to higher education; nursing homes, jails and prisons are some of the most sensitive hotbeds for the virus, due in large part to residents using shared amenities.
“It was very predictable,” Paccione said. “Who wouldn’t know that coming back to the campus, in droves, that we would see cases? It would be astonishing if there were no cases.”
For many colleges, success has hinged on whether they can make the best of 2020’s cocktail of a health crisis, economic uncertainty and renewed racial reckoning, according to Paccione. And what would be predictable behavior is playing out very differently this year.
For example, college enrollment often goes up during economic downturns as people seek to retrain themselves, but that’s not been the case this year.
“Nothing is being true to form right now, so we have to be agile, and we have to be flexible, and we have to be responsive to the needs of our students and the needs of our communities,” Paccione said.
“Risk for a purpose”
Of course, context matters. State governments in Georgia and Florida have taken less stringent approaches in responding to the pandemic. In Colorado, overarching laws — including a mask-wearing mandate — have governed the state as a whole, but each county can get different designations than its neighbors as to what it’s allowed to do, depending on how many cases it has and how well it’s handling them.
OUR UNDERWRITERS SUPPORT JOURNALISM. BECOME ONE.
Take Mesa County, which held protect-our-neighbors status — the most lenient of the state’s designations — from Sept. 16 until Oct. 24, when it was forced to shift back to safer-at-home level 1 because of rising cases. The county is home to Colorado Mesa University, which enrolled just over 9,000 students this semester.
John Marshall, co-chair of the campus’ Safe Together Strong Together Task Force, noted that the campus’ coronavirus response focuses on values, in large part due to who its students are. Most of Colorado Mesa’s students are either the first in their families to go to college, students of color or low-income, and for many, the question of college, according to Marshall, is “not where, but if.”
“We have a mission-driven obligation to get back in person,” Marshall said, adding, “it’s not risk for the sake of being reckless, it’s risk for a purpose.”
Recognizing the need to continue classes while keeping coronavirus from spreading out of control, CMU administrators dove head-first this fall into implementing cohorts, which group people together to limit viral transmission and make contact tracing easier.
Each cohort, called a Mavily — meshing the school’s mascot, the Maverick, with family — varies in size, based on their purpose. There are 355 Mavilys, classified into three different tiers based on their transmission risk and size.
Low-risk students, such as those who commute for just a handful of classes each week, are in Tier 3. Those who have moderate risk for close-contact transmission, including performing arts groups and health sciences labs, are in Tier 2.
Tier 1 indicates high potential risk for intergroup transmission, such as residential suitemates or athletic teams. When Tier 1 students are exclusively in the company of others in their Mavily unit, they are not expected to wear masks or socially distance. But outsiders are not allowed, especially in a residentially defined Mavily, in order to keep the campus’ wastewater testing for coronavirus consistent and accurate. Every residential Mavily has its own bathroom and community social area.
The focus on students extended to an elective class the school started this fall, called “Leadership In The Time Of A Pandemic,” taught by Marshall and fellow task force co-chair Amy Bronson. Students can offer their feedback on how things are going, discuss pandemic-related topics with administrators, and hear from professionals who are working to handle the pandemic on and off campus. Gov. Jared Polis even visited one day.
Jacob Martin, a public accounting student who’s in the class, said it has been a great way to understand the pandemic both from the perspective of his college as well as the perspectives of other students in different disciplines. There are things from a typical school year that Martin and his peers miss, like getting coffee from the on-campus cafe in between classes. But, he said, “it’s nothing that I wouldn’t give away to be safe.”
As a CMU senior, and in his third year as a resident assistant, he says the cohorting system has been helpful for first-year students especially to adjust to the semester. The Mavily system gives students clear boundaries of when it is and isn’t safe to take off their masks, Martin says, and though it took a bit of an adjustment, students are settling in well.
Most importantly, in-person classes have stayed that way.
“This is our privilege to be here; it’s not our right,” Martin said.
Not all of the school’s strategies have succeeded, though. The pandemic team attempted to send mail-in COVID-19 tests to students who were moving back to campus in August, but Marshall said since very few people actually sent the tests back, the effort was largely ineffective.
But the cohorts have paid off, especially when it comes to contact tracing a case. Early on, a combination of random testing and wastewater monitoring detected COVID-19 in the football team’s Mavily, Marshall said. With the cohorting system, it was very easy to contain the outbreak — both with isolation and contact tracing — before it got out of hand. On Oct. 10, the football team had its first game of the season against Chadron State College, winning 10-7 in overtime.
From the start of the semester to Oct. 23, the campus reported 175 cases. Marshall credited students for buying into a safety-oriented culture, though being surrounded by Grand Junction’s plethora of medical resources and experts has certainly helped, too. The school plans to increase its percentage of in-person classes for the spring.
“We’re going to get through this and we’re going to do it together,” Marshall said.
“We can’t rush the process”
Back on the Front Range, Metropolitan State University of Denver worked to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic as well, albeit in a much different setting.
MSU Denver is part of a multi-school campus with no affiliated housing. It has a large non-traditional student population, with the average student age of 25 years old. Many students don’t live in the neighborhoods surrounding the school, or even the city of Denver.
Since the beginning of the semester, the campus has had 46 COVID-19 cases among its staff, faculty and almost 19,000 students. But in the past week or so, Denver’s cases have risen rapidly and new, localized restrictions have been put in place. Since the campus operates within Denver’s health orders, if the city shuts down, so will the campus.
While MSU Denver offered 90% of its classes fully online this semester, the campus announced last week that it will try to have more in-person learning in the spring. One set of courses, starting in January, will have 14% of classes meeting on campus, and a second set of courses starting in March that will “add as many (in-person classes) as possible in a safe manner.”
Student body president Braeden Weart, a fourth-year student studying political science, said he knows many of his peers want to get back to in-person learning. The campus doesn’t have the same “hangout culture” as a residential school does, and he says it’s harder to connect with peers and professors when the classroom closes at the end of a video call.
“It’s been weird,” Weart said.
Still, Weart wonders if his peers are accurately weighing the risk of going to in-person class versus the rewards. And especially with cases rising, he’d rather play it safe with online classes until there’s a vaccine or better case control.
“We can’t rush the process,” Weart said.
Larry Sampler, MSU Denver’s chief operating officer and pandemic response lead, noted that the lack of group housing on campus means a super-spreader situation is less likely. MSU Denver shares the Auraria campus with the University of Colorado Denver and Community College of Denver and the state health department has asked each school to report its own case numbers separately, though they share a campus health center. And due to the historic nature of its architecture, many of the classrooms on campus can accommodate only a handful of students with COVID-19 precautions in place.
Given these and other factors, the school could be positioned to navigate an increase to in-person classes in the spring more effectively. At least, Sampler hopes it will.
“We’ve been lucky, if you consider luck as the confluence of preparation and opportunity,” Sampler said. “The university is learning what we’re made of.”
Some classes are easier to teach virtually than others, and the hands-on nature of many engineering classes makes them particularly tricky to manage online. That’s why at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, 74% of the school’s fall classes are offered at least partially in-person. The university intends to offer even more in-person classes in the spring, including more for upper-division classes instead of just first-year students.
Peter Han, chief of staff for Mines’ president and the school’s pandemic incident commander, credited the multiple ventilation experts on campus for helping to ensure classroom transmission is functionally nonexistent.
“We’ve worked really hard to get students an in-person experience for those that want it,” Han said.
But in the spirit of keeping the campus healthy, every classroom has also been retrofitted with live lecture streaming and recording technology. That way, students can stay on track with class in real time without missing a beat, regardless of whether they are in the classroom that day.
Despite having most classes in-person, Mines has seen only 83 cases from move-in to Oct. 23. Han said students have been generally good about mask requirements, but like other universities, their case fluctuations have often mirrored that of the surrounding Jefferson County community.
Han worries that pandemic fatigue could set in at some point and, on the longer-term outlook, that fall 2021 enrollment may take a hit. Enrollment this year was flat compared to fall 2019, but that’s likely because the university ended up with a larger class than it anticipated last year.
In other words, Han said, “this is not over.”
“Like Fyre Festival”
Not every college and university in Colorado has had success.
CU Boulder has seen almost 1,800 cases in its campus community since students returned to campus in August. At its peak, Boulder County Public Health logged 183 positive polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests associated with CU students, staff and faculty in one day.
The peak two-week case trend among Boulder County residents ages 18 to 22 was 3,780.6 per 100,000 people.
Outbreaks associated with CU have led to concerns that the county could backslide into heavier restrictions, leading to more pain for the local economy. Specific public health orders have been designated for 18- to 22-year-olds, and off-campus group houses, including most fraternities and sororities, have been required to submit transmission mitigation plans.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which is not associated with the university but whose membership is composed of CU students, received cease-and-desist orders from the Boulder Police Department and has been sanctioned through the off-campus fraternity council for hosting multiple hundred-plus-person parties this fall.
Administrators have repeatedly emphasized — often in community meetings and virtual briefings — that the vast majority of the almost 35,000 students at CU Boulder are obeying public health orders.
In an interview with The Colorado Sun, Dan Jones, assistant vice chancellor for integrity, safety and compliance, defended the school’s decision to bring students back to campus, despite having to move all classes online from Sept. 23 to Oct. 14 because of rising cases.
“We designed classrooms with the assumption of safe spacing, but at some point it’s safer to take a step back,” Jones said. About half the classes started the semester virtually, and some of the ones that started in-person have transitioned to be permanently virtual following the campus shutdown.
There’s mixed evidence as to how much viral transmission actually occurs in a classroom when precautions are taken like mask wearing, washing hands or using sanitizer, and social distancing.
In Fort Collins, Colorado State University’s roughly 28,000 students have not had to make the same switch to online. 65 percent of their classes are partially or entirely in-person.
The school is still the second largest higher education-related outbreak in the state, with more than 450 COVID-19 cases since students moved into campus housing on Aug. 17. Multiple dorms have been quarantined en masse over the course of the semester, thanks to wastewater tests indicating the presence of COVID-19.
But despite the hundreds of cases and several quarantines, the school’s peak day of positive test results was just 26.
When CU Boulder released its spring 2021 plans last week, many students were disappointed to find the school canceled its typical week-long spring break. There will be two “student wellness” days — one in February and one in March — and the semester will start three days later than initially intended. The university hopes that the long weekends will limit student travel during the semester in ways that a full week off might not.
Zachary Segars, a senior journalism major, said to take away spring break and its restorative time off is adding insult to injury after a less-than-ideal autumn.
“The school year is a total grind, especially for people that are having to work a job or two while attending school,” Segars said. “Taking away spring break is a fairly awful idea.”
CU was not the first school in the U.S. to scrap spring break. University of Michigan, University of Iowa, Baylor University and others announced similar changes more than a month ago.
Other Colorado public universities are opting to keep spring break. Colorado Mesa University moved the break to later in the semester, at which point students will shift to remote learning to finish out the last couple of weeks of the academic year. Meanwhile, Western Colorado University will have a spring break just as it was planning to pre-pandemic.
With winter fast approaching — and a rise in coronavirus cases already starting — Segars, the journalism student, said he’s looking to take as many online classes in the spring as he can, if for no other reason than to avoid switching class modes multiple times like he did in the fall.
“It’s like Fyre Festival,” Segars said, referencing the infamously expensive and ultimately failed music festival. “Everything about [this semester] has been so gross.”
Correction: a previous version of this story stated that Clemson University was in Georgia. It is in South Carolina.