Why social distancing can help colleges stem the spread of coronavirus

Weeks after officials first detected the novel coronavirus in the U.S., many colleges and universities nationwide announced, in astoundingly rapid succession, that they would ditch face-to-face classes in favor of online instruction.

Some institutions ordered students to stay home after spring break, while others, such as Harvard University, told on-campus residents to vacate their dormitories. 

The tactic university officials are using is called social distancing. It has somewhat of a buzzword as the new coronavirus, and the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19, has taken hold in six of the world’s seven continents.

More than 1,300 COVID-19 cases and at least 38 related deaths have been recorded in the U.S., according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University.  

Social distancing refers to the practice of staying away from large gatherings and crowded areas, such as shopping centers and stadiums. In a university setting, it could apply to classrooms and residence halls, in which students study and live in close quarters. 

It also involves keeping enough distance between people to “reduce the risk of breathing in droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” an advisory from Harvard Medical School states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends about 6 feet of space.

Health experts say social distancing has proven to be one of the most effective means of stemming the proliferation of similarly virulent diseases. Institutions have said they are taking steps to remove students from campuses in order to minimize the virus’s impact.

The trend began last Friday, when the University of Washington said it would have students on all three of its campuses take their classes and exams remotely. Other colleges and universities followed in the coming days. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 200 institutions said they are moving classes online, and some requested students leave campus, according to a crowdsourced list created by Georgetown University scholar Bryan Alexander.

Such decisions are likely borne out of caution and based on data, said Suzanne Willard, associate dean for global health and a clinical professor at Rutgers University’s School of Nursing. 

Willard, who has extensively studied the HIV epidemic, likened the outbreaks of the coronavirus to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, in which panic was high and few grasped how the virus was transmitted. The CDC said it is still learning exactly how the coronavirus spreads. 

Absent a complete picture of the disease, colleges are trying to be responsible, Willard said, even though they can’t control every factor. Administrators can ban study abroad travel, but they can’t stop students from going on spring break trips, she said.

“We as a society, we’re into quick fixes. You go to the doctor, get a pill for a runny nose, and it’s over and done with,” Willard said. “But that’s not how illnesses work. We need to be patient and think and understand it a bit more.”

Social distancing can be a powerful tool while institutions, along with health and government agencies, work out their responses.

The efficacy of social distancing was illustrated in a study of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed between 500,000 and 675,000 people in the U.S.

Despite cases of the flu being reported in Philadelphia, officials there allowed large public gatherings — including a citywide parade —​ to continue in an attempt to downplay the severity of the situation, according to the report, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 

St. Louis officials, meanwhile, promoted social distancing upon learning about initial infections locally. It had far fewer cases and fatalities.

Similar research from the National Institutes of Health showed school closures and other social distancing measures in Mexico limited flu transmission rates there during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic.

Health officials describe the intended outcome of social distancing as “flattening the curve.” Without these protective measures, cases of coronavirus are likely to peak in higher numbers quickly. With the safeguards in place, however, infections will occur more gradually over a longer period, helping the health care system keep up.

‘Keep communication open’

Proceeding with cancelations can be challenging for college officials. Moving off campus, in particular, can be labor-intensive and is generally only attempted a few times a year. Setting up an efficient and effective online learning platform also can be difficult. 

Officials at colleges forcing students to move out have said they are allowing some to stay on campus. However, they have generally stressed that these exemptions will be narrow.

Students also face barriers to continuing their education away from campus, from lacking adequate internet access to having been exiled from home due to their sexuality or gender identity. 

Stanford University, which was one of the first universities to shift classes online, is asking students not to return to campus after spring break. They are allowing some to remain in the dormitories, which “is reasonable,” said Dean Winslow, a professor of medicine at the institution.

Right now, Stanford’s School of Medicine is struggling with how to continue instruction for its medical students, who generally watch after patients, Winslow said. 

“You can’t do that virtually,” Winslow said.

Colleges also may be considering their liability, as they can potentially be held responsible under state negligence laws if students became ill and they didn’t respond, said Melanie Bennett, risk management counsel for United Educators, one of the nation’s largest insurance agencies for colleges and universities. Those laws vary by jurisdiction, and colleges should ask their counsel if they are concerned, she said.

As Inside Higher Ed reported, few institutions carry insurance protection related to biological disasters. 

“We as a society, we’re into quick fixes. You go to the doctor, get a pill for a runny nose, and it’s over and done with. But that’s not how illnesses work. We need to be patient and think and understand it a bit more.”

Suzanne Willard

Associate dean for global health, Rutgers University School of Nursing

Social distancing can be an option for institutions at this point in the disease’s progression, Bennett said. The decision to move instruction online will still likely be case-by-case, depending on the size of the college and whether it is primarily residential.

Even some two-year colleges, where students tend to live away from campus, have elected to cease in-person classes. Bennett said institutions should keep in contact with the CDC and other government entities to listen for next steps, as well as develop emergency plans for responding to the coronavirus.

This reflects guidance from the American College Health Association published last week advising colleges to prepare in advance for a potential outbreak on or near their campus. 

“Keep talking to each other,” Bennett said. “Keep studying what’s happening and keep communication open.”

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