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Colleges take different approaches to tracking COVID-19 as students return to campus

UNC-Chapel Hill recently launched a COVID-19 dashboard to report tests and cases. But critics fear it won’t be able to prevent an outbreak.
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Students returning to their dorms at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have a new tool to help them navigate campus this semester: a COVID-19 dashboard.

Updated weekly, the CV-19 dashboard tracks numerous metrics, including the number of tests conducted, the number of positive cases, school isolation and quarantine capacity and the percentage of courses being taught in-person, remotely or a mix of both.

“Campus leaders wanted to make sure the Carolina community had a resource for monitoring a range of data points,” Leslie Minton, a university spokesperson, said. “The dashboard was created with input from Carolina’s infectious disease and data experts, emergency management services, UNC Health and our local health department.”

As of Aug. 4, when the dashboard was last updated, UNC-Chapel Hill had recorded 175 infections: 139 in students and 36 in university employees.

The decision to reopen campuses, and how widely, has generated national debate. Students, faculty and staff members have criticized UNC-Chapel Hill’s initial plan to reopen in spite of the county health department’s recommendation to go virtual for its first five weeks of the semester.

The university has since readjusted its reopening plan to limit classroom occupancy to 30 percent and increase its testing capacity, frequency of public transportation and on-campus parking.

There is no existing standard of reporting coronavirus cases or deaths on campuses, nor is that information being publicly tracked on a national scale. A New York Times survey revealed at least 6,600 cases tied to roughly 270 colleges.

Universities have taken various approaches to sharing coronavirus updates with students and faculty.

Some schools beyond UNC-Chapel Hill, such as the University of Wisconsin—Madison, plan to launch their own COVID-19 dashboards to raise the curtain on operational decisions. Colleges elsewhere are employing different methods, such as West Virginia University publishing daily test results collected across its university system.

But others, such as Arizona State University, refuse to publish any campus-wide data. Some cite privacy concerns, which forces students and faculty to rely on a state’s publicly available zip code and county COVID-19 data.

A number of schools are also using coronavirus symptom-tracking apps to screen large groups of people.

Efforts like UNC-Chapel Hill’s new toolkit allow students to make better-informed decisions about returning this fall, one health expert said.

“Information and data are vital to make healthy decisions,” Todd McGee, Orange County Health Department spokesperson, said. “The dashboard will keep the UNC community informed about the status of coronavirus on campus and guide the administration should they need to make adjustments to their operations.”

Earlier this week, Minton said the university shifted the dashboard from daily to weekly updates out of privacy concerns for students and employees — a move that was seen by the community as “unannounced, unexpected and alarming,” said James Sadler, a doctoral student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s school of education.

Cesar Lopez, an M.D.-Ph.D. student in microbiology and immunology at UNC-Chapel Hill, understood the privacy concerns shared by the university. “But moving to weekly updates inherently causes a delay in our awareness of the on-the-ground situation,” he said.

"You don't notice increases in transmission at the population level until about two to three weeks after it actually starts rising," Lopez said. "Adding an extra week delay on top of that on the dashboard, already on top of dayslong backlogs on test results, and that easily adds up to a monthlong delay in our knowledge of what is going on in the community."

The “curious timing” of the dashboard change, Sadler said, follows weeks and months of students and staff members urging the university to operate online during the pandemic.

On July 29, the county health department recommended UNC-Chapel Hill go virtual for its first five weeks of the fall semester — a memo that was largely ignored and undisclosed to the public until a week later.

A group of tenured faculty members wrote an open letter expressing their fears that reopening campus “too quickly and completely” would have dire consequences.

“We recognize that some of you will have to live on campus this fall semester for financial or personal reasons, and we want to help ensure that campus is safe for you,” the professors wrote in the open letter published in the Charlotte Observer last week. “We implore the rest of you to stay home this fall.”

On Wednesday, dozens of students and faculty staged a “die-in” protest against the university’s transparency and efforts to protect its community from an outbreak.

“It’s impossible to trust the motives of UNC when every decision they’ve made thus far has gone against the majority of what health officials, students and faculty think what safety looks like,” Sadler said.

In May, the university created a “roadmap” website to navigate how to operate during the school year, including an “off-ramp” plan for removing students when cases spiked — the number of cases to reach that threshold, however, was unspecified.

The roadmap also relies on students to follow preventative measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“There are limitations in enforcing expectations,” Robert Blouin, executive vice chancellor and provost of UNC-Chapel Hill, said during a press conference Thursday. “We emphasize to our students that the community standards that have been identified by this university extend beyond the walls of the campus.”

“We are expecting our students to stay faithful to those standards,” Blouin said.

Orange County — which houses the campus — as of Aug. 7 has experienced 1,329 cases of COVID-19 and 47 deaths, according to state health data. The cumulative rate of positive test results at the school is 10.6 percent — higher than the statewide rate of 8 percent.

“What this signals to me is that there’s a huge potential for outbreaks and deaths,” Sadler said.

For universities, there is a delicate balancing act between weighing financial and community concerns with public health guidance — all while facing the grim reality that without a vaccine, no matter how classes are held, positive cases are bound to occur.

“Inevitably, there’s going to be an outbreak, regardless of whether classes are in-person or online,” Sadler said.