Dive Brief:

  • A trio of Democratic senators is requesting top federal health officials develop a national strategy for collecting and publicly reporting data on coronavirus outbreaks linked to college campuses.

  • The lawmakers wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield Wednesday, urging them to coordinate with local and state health officials to ensure the information is gathered in a timely and transparent fashion. 

  • Their missive coincides with the start of the academic year at many colleges, some of which are already battling flare-ups of the virus. 

Dive Insight:

Some institutions that reopened campuses this fall have already experienced viral outbreaks. Most notably, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved its undergraduate courses online after confirming at least 130 students tested positive for the virus. And Oklahoma State University quarantined an entire sorority house after identifying 23 positive cases there. 

Administrators have banked on students following health protocols, such as social distancing, mask wearing and avoiding large gatherings, to help mitigate the virus. But the rash of campus outbreaks suggest their expectations aren’t coming to pass. The New York Times last month found 6,600 coronavirus cases associated with four-year schools in the U.S., though it acknowledged this was likely a severe undercount. The publication did not track cases at two-year schools as well as many private colleges, and some of the schools they contacted didn’t respond to their inquiries. 

Some colleges have backed away from face-to-face classes. The University of Notre Dame on Tuesday suspended in-person undergraduate instruction for two weeks. The same day, Michigan State University said it would transition to mostly remote classes for the term.

Institutions have developed dramatically different methods of publicly reporting confirmed coronavirus cases. Some officials have released regular updates to their campuses, while others share the information through public online dashboards.

The letter from the three legislators, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Tina Smith and Chris Murphy, notes the potential for such inconsistencies. The public is relying on colleges to voluntarily share numbers, but the CDC hasn’t specified “a standardized format or level of detail for reporting cases or the frequency with which cases should be disclosed to the public,” they wrote. 

“This lack of guidance is likely to create a patchwork of inconsistent information across states, localities, and the nation, undermining transparency and efforts to address the pandemic,” the lawmakers wrote. 

They go on to say that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with the CDC and local and state health officials, should gather demographic data from colleges to gauge whether the virus has disproportionately affected certain college students and employees. Widespread research shows the pandemic has had an outsized impact on people of color, they note.

The three senators want to know what guidance federal health officials will provide colleges on reporting coronavirus cases, and how they plan to publish that data. They are also asking the agencies for information on how they have worked with the U.S. Department of Education to collect coronavirus-related data from colleges. 

They want officials’ answers by Sept. 2.

Other efforts to understand the effects of the coronavirus on colleges have emerged in the absence of this information.

Chris Marsicano, an educational studies professor at Davidson College and founder of the College Crisis Initiative, which researches institutional responses to the pandemic, said he started the project because “no one” was tracking the sort of data the three senators are requesting.

The Education Department “abdicated responsibility” to gather and publicize that information, Marsicano said, the result being that some colleges are transparent with their coronavirus numbers, while others won’t share anything. 

With proper funding, a federal database could be feasible, Marsicano said

“I’m glad Warren and the others are doing this,” he said. “A little bit of pressure could go a long way.”

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