New Study Links College Reopenings To Spike In COVID-19 Cases

Sep 24, 2020

File photo of Charles Jacocks, rear, along with his wife Carrie and incoming freshman Ann Grace, right, carry their belongings as college students begin moving in for the fall semester at N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, July 31, 2020.
Credit Gerry Broome / AP

A new study links college reopenings to spikes in COVID-19 cases across the country. The study is co-authored by UNC Greensboro economics professor Martin Andersen, Davidson College education professor Chris Marsicano and others. Marsicano is also the Director of the College Crisis Initiative.

WUNC's Education Reporter Liz Schlemmer spoke with Marsicano about the study's findings. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

This study you worked on looked at county level data on COVID-19 case counts, in counties where colleges reopened. What did you find?

The first thing we found was that when colleges reopened for in-person instruction, or for online instruction, either one, we saw a bunch of students -- a bunch of people really -- moving from counties where there aren't colleges to counties where there are, and we know that's happening because we're actually able to track their cell phones.

We then see a spike in cases of COVID-19, about two weeks after colleges and universities reopen.

Was anything about that surprising?

We expected to find something, but I don't think we expected to find the key number here, which is reopening college campuses for in-person instruction is associated with a 3,000 case increase per day in America. That scale -- that's surprising.

What's your big takeaway from that?

Mobility matters, right? So the movement to and from campus, that flow of people in and around campus, that is what we think is causing this spike in cases.

And I should point out that we're not able to separate here between student cases and county cases, people who are living in the county that aren't students.

The biggest concern we have is not so much the 18-to-22 year olds who are traditional college-age students that tend to, on average, be pretty healthy. We're worried about the mother of the bar owner of the bar that the students went to, we're worried about that 88-year old grandmother.

Chris Marsicano leads students conducting research for the College Crisis Initiative.
Credit Courtesy of Davidson College

How can you be sure that you can attribute that rise in cases to college reopenings, and not to some other factor like access to testing or simply trends at the time that colleges opened in August?

We're comparing colleges that reopened in-person to areas of the country that don't have colleges to reopen, and areas of the country that have colleges that reopened online. And so we can sort of account for the trends across the country in August.

We've received a lot of questions about access to testing, [as in] 'How do you know that this is just not a ramped up testing protocol and that we're just seeing more results because of testing?' And the answer there is an answer around time. If we had the spike the second that students got on campus, then we would be pretty sure that it wasn't necessarily spread, but it was just access to new testing. But we don't see the spike in cases until two weeks after campuses have reopened in person.

What insights could this study give to college decision makers who are now looking forward to the spring?

The first is do not let the students go home. The worst thing we could do is send them home.

So college and university leaders have a duty to make sure that when students go home, they're going home at a time where the case counts are under control. The last thing we want to do is send anybody, any students, home to go kill grandma.

For the spring, it's sort of the same story. For institutions that draw students from places with high incidences of COVID-19 cases, maybe it's time to think about a spring semester that is entirely online, rather than bringing students from areas where there are high case counts to your campus.