Novel Coronavirus and Higher Education: 10 Recommendations for Beginning a Risk Assessment

Campus Risk

The novel coronavirus pandemic has disrupted process and routine for institutes of higher education (IHE). Courses have migrated online and schools are eager to know how they can preserve the health and safety of students, faculty and their wider communities. Without a vaccine or effective treatment, welcoming students back to campus poses public health risks. It’s especially important to understand how transmission of the virus occurs and how the campus context can harbor more than just eager minds.

Some of the most distinctive elements of campus culture include co-inhabited living space, packed classrooms and noisy dining halls. Riding the campus bus or going to and from an internship begins to look different during the coronavirus pandemic. With thousands of young, excited and bustling students moving from campus, work, and internships, transmission chains become longer and pose high risks of exposure, unfortunately resulting in the sharing of more than just big ideas. 

Using Infection Prevention Control (IPC) and Occupational Health and Hygiene frameworks, organizational risk assessments can identify IHE needs and assets. These assessments enhance health and safety policy, procedure, and protocols. Below we share 10 recommendations for beginning an IHE risk assessment.

  1. Adapt annual influenza prevention programs to include education regarding the novel coronavirus.
  2. Ensure adequate school infrastructure to evaluate infection and immunity, given appropriate time window following infections
  3. Amend existing disease surveillance program for staff to address the identification, containment, investigation, monitoring and early reporting of staff, students and visitors that display symptoms of coronavirus, MMR and influenza. This program should be able to track transmission chains and identify if spread is occurring within staff and/or student populations.
  4. Secure access to professionals who can evaluate a school’s IPC program.
  5. Implement IPC with adequate human and financial support.
  6. Consider cohorting high-risk students, such as nursing and allied health.
    1. House students who have clinicals or other high-exposure activities in designated wings or levels of dormitories to reduce transmission
    1. House students with high levels of travel for internships, sports, vacations, etc. together.
  7. Implement procedures that reduce the movement of crowds to improve social distancing adherence.
    1. Stagger class beginning and end times.
    1. Reduce in-person class days.
    1. Offer online optional classes.
    1. Move teachers betwixt classrooms rather than students, when possible.
    1. Implement unidirectional hallways.
    1. Prohibit large group gatherings.
  8. Proactively evaluate indicators that demonstrate the need to migrate back to online coursework and a plan for how to transition, if necessary.
    1. Effective campus IPC evaluation.
    1. Communication strategy to faculty and students (expectations, plan).
    1. Online tools (training, planning, communication, troubleshooting).
  9. Create a plan that accommodates students who become quarantined, but still need to finish coursework. 
    1. Online method, such as class recording, that can be instituted for students in quarantine.
    1. Scheduling tools for students who need to make up missed labs, clinicals or other activities that cannot be digitized.
  10. Adjust campus transportation needs to reduce communal transportation.
    1. Allow longer breaks for students who bike, walk or use an alternative transport method to reduce demand for campus bus system.
    1. Reduce bus maximum occupancy numbers.
    1. Create more pedestrian- and rider-friendly walkways and campuses.

When considering complex environments, IPC frameworks should be adapted to the campus setting and consider the unique experiences of students who have internships from programs such as nursing, allied health and education. As outlined, the student population has many variables that increase risk of SARS-CoV-2 exposure. It is imperative that universities execute thoughtful procedure, policy and protocols when students return to school.

written by DR. GEORGE ASTRAKIANAKIS and Mary Brannock, MS

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