Post #797: JMU goes online

Posted on September 2, 2020

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James Madison University will convert to on-line instruction, and has asked its roughly 20,000 students to return home by labor day.  These students should then quarantine themselves for 14 days once they return home.

Based on news reporting, they had about 300 students test positive in the past week, and they were running out of quarantine space.  They may try to restart on-campus learning in early October.

Is there anything to be learned from this failure? Or from the ongoing outbreak at Radford University, where 195 individuals tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week (out of an enrollment of about 8000).  (A high count at Radford was easily expected, given the Commonwealth’s count for the City of Radford — see last post).

No hospitalizations.  First, as with Radford, JMU reports that nobody was hospitalized.  So this seems to repeat a pattern of widespread infection, but (so far) no life-threatening cases.

That’s primarily, but not entirely, a function of youth.  In Virginia, for the age 10-19 age bracket, just 1% of all COVID-19 cases required hospitalization.  So, for these two schools, we would have expected maybe 8 hospitalizations so far, given the total count of infections, based on the state average.  Instead, there have been none.  That’s entirely plausible, given the many difference between a population of college students and the general population.

Parties are a problem.  Second, again with some parallel to Radford, the virus mostly spread in large off-campus “social gatherings”, by which we can reasonably assume they mean parties.  Similarly, Radford suspended one fraternity (and eight of its members) for breaking rules in social gatherings and flouting social distancing and mask-use rules.

I guess this is predictable, but you still have to stay, it’s predictably stupid.

Edit:  I know this sounds more than a bit nuts, but in hindsight, these colleges need to start diverting students from these private parties, if there is any plausible way to do that.  If they end up shutting down the campus because some people feel the need to attend large parties, then that is the problem that needs to be addressed.  Offer a large number of officially sanctioned events.  Make it clear that the only social gatherings that will be allowed are those supervised by the university itself, adhering to all of the COVID-19 safety rules.  And threaten suspension or expulsion if you are caught attending anything but those officially-sanctioned events, on or off campus.  Because, clearly, what some students are choosing to do off-campus is coming back to haunt the entire university.

No pre-arrival testing of students.  Third, Radford did not test the students prior to arrival.  What about JMU?  They also did not test students prior to the return to campus.  Instead, they merely required students to submit a self-reported health care screening.  (Which, clearly, is not going to catch asymptomatic cases, now thought to be roughly 40% of all cases.)

Off-campus housing may be an issue.  I say this because I thought that Virginia Tech tested all students upon arrival to campus.  But that’s not even close to true.  They only required that for students living in on-campus housing.  And two-thirds of their students are in off-campus housing.  (Reference).  So, Virginia Tech required testing for just one-third of their student body prior to or during campus return, which I think now looks like a mistake.  (For those in off-campus housing, they simply “encouraged” them to get a test.)  They had 157 students test positive in the past week.

So I think we can stop right there and point out an obvious problemThe Commonwealth does not recommend that schools test students for COVID-19 before returning to campus.  So both Radford and JMU were simply following the Commonwealth’s guidelines for campus re-opening.  Separately, some schools required testing for just part of their student body, those literally living in campus housing.  But I’m guessing that makes sense if and only if you believe that students are going to obey all the rules. 

In hindsight, if you can reliably count on some fraction of students ignoring the rules, you probably should test the entire student body before returning to campus.  Maybe you can get away without testing if social distancing, mask use, and gathering limits are strictly maintained.  But if some portion of your campus community is going to be, in effect, a great big open bar, failure to test prior to re-starting is probably a mistake.  In that situation, all it takes is one infected super-spreader (an individual who emits an unusually large quantity of aerosol particles when speaking or shouting), one large illegal party, and that’s the end of school for the year.

In other words, a strategy of not testing all students AND being unable to enforce coronavirus health and safety rules is not a robust plan.  In that case, the entire campus is a risk of failure if even a small segment flouts the rules.  As seems to be the case at JMU, at least per newspaper reports of the incident.

And, other than for the logistics of it, I truly do not understand the logic of allowing those in off-campus housing to be part of your campus community, but not requiring them to submit to the same testing standards as this living on campus.  That makes absolutely no sense that I can see, from a public health standpoint.

Asymptomatic cases.  Radford’s on-campus testing also provides a window into asymptomatic cases, via their COVID-19 dashboard, but shown more clearly in this news report.  Radford broke with their stated plan to test symptomatic cases only, and held a voluntary “screening” test for non-symptomatic individuals who were not known close contacts with infected cases.  They found that 5% of those individuals who were voluntarily screened tested positive for COVID-19.  By report, the screening population was more-or-less a voluntary sample of persons without known exposure to the disease.  If that really is a cross-section of the campus, they really have little choice but to shut down.  (Note, that’s 5% who had active infections at the time of the screening.)

No uniform guideline for shutting down based on (e.g.) infection rate.  How do these infection rates compare to the community-resident background rate?

  • Background rate, community residents in this age group, 9 /100K /day
  • Virginia Tech (157 / week, 35,000 enrollment) works out to 65 / 100K / day
  • JMU (300 / week, 20,000 enrollment) works out to about 200 / 100K/ day.
  • Radford (195 cases, 8000 enrollment) works out to about 350 / 100K / day.

Those calculations all assume that the total school enrollment is present on campus.  Of these, only JMU is shutting down, and by report, that’s only because they’re running out of quarantine space.

I also note that JMU had already considered what criteria it would use for determining whether to shut down or not.  So the planners at JMU had already contemplated this possibility.

What about William and Mary?  Contrast this to William and Mary, with no cases.  I’ll point to a handful of things that probably contribute to this.  First, I believe that testing was a requirement for return to campus.  (I’m not sure about the roughly 30% of students living off-campus).  Second, they are having a very slow phased opening.  The freshman class is living on-campus, but all classes are still being done over the internet.  Upper classes will move in this weekend, and in-person classes will start September 8.  Third, (at least some of) the freshman dorms are not air-conditioned.  (Or, at least, my daughter’s wasn’t).  So if indoor ventilation is the key to preventing transmission, they (inadvertently) nailed that one on behalf of the freshman class.  But not so for the remaining classes.  Fourth, by report, “Greek life” plays a relatively minor role on campus, reducing the likelihood of large fraternity and sorority parties.  (And in any case, the upper classes have not arrived on campus yet.)  Finally, the Hampton Roads area is under additional restrictions on (e.g.) the operation of bars and serving of alcohol, which may (or may not) play a role as the upper classes move in this weekend.

I guess the best way to view this is that they haven’t really gone back to school yet.  Mostly.  The freshman class is living in the dorms and taking classes on-line.  The rest of the student body arrives this weekend.  And in-person classes commence September 8.

I have to say, compare to what I’m seeing elsewhere, they really have pulled out all the stops on their re-opening plan.  It’s tough to be more cautious than that, short of shutting down the campus and doing everything on-line.  I guess that sometime around mid-September, we’ll find out whether or not all that cauation has paid off.