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Testing, tracing, distancing at the center of colleges’ COVID-19 fall plans

Testing, tracing, distancing at the center of colleges’ COVID-19 fall plans

All returning students to be tested for COVID infection
Testing, tracing, distancing at the center of colleges’ COVID-19 fall plans
Union College's Nott Memorial
Photographer: File photo

CAPITAL REGION -- Colleges across the Capital Region are planning to welcome students to campus in the fall, relying on regular COVID-19 testing, stringent distancing protocols and a combination of in-person and remote instruction.

Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on Tuesday both released detailed plans for the fall semester, outlining which students will return to campus, how they will monitor for virus infections and what day-to-day operations will look like.

Both colleges envision widespread student and employee testing, regular health monitoring and isolation protocols as the core of preventing an infection outbreak on campus. All students and staff returning to campus at Union and RPI in the fall will be tested for COVID-19 upon their return and regularly throughout the semester, and Union plans to test students weekly throughout the semester.

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Union College President David Harris cited advances in testing over recent months and the college’s ability to access low-cost tests as crucial in bringing students back to campus. He said test results should be available within 24 hours, allowing the college to know whether any returning students are infected and monitor campus infections throughout the school year.

“This is the importance of testing that is high quality with rapid results,” Harris said in a Tuesday interview.

The plans also call for close health monitoring of students and employees on campus, asking people on campus to daily check for infection symptoms and relying on technology in contact-tracing efforts in the event someone tests positive.

At RPI, for example, students, faculty and staff on campus will be asked to log their daily movements and interactions [to the level of what rooms they went into] as well as a personal health assessment on a college-provided mobile app used in the school’s virus-monitoring efforts.

“If they observe and report any of the symptoms identified with the COVID-19 infection, they will be contacted by a [college] tracer or nurse with follow-up questions,” according to the RPI plan.

RPI also indicated it was considering the use of “proximity tracing software on mobile devices,” which can use cellphone data to determine who may have come in close contact with someone who was infected with the virus.

At Union, which doesn’t include tracking technology in its plans, students and staff on campus will also have to conduct a daily personal health assessment and attest to their well-being online. Students and employees who do not comply with health protocols, including social distancing, will be subject to disciplinary actions, according to the Union plan.

The colleges are both designating portions of on-campus housing to serve as quarantine spaces for students who may become infected. Those students will be provided food and remote access to classwork and academic supports.

The colleges are largely giving students the option to return to campus or continue their coursework remotely, though Union strongly encouraged its freshmen students to come to campus and RPI is having its entire sophomore class carry out its fall semester remotely.

Actual classes will be conducted both in-person and remotely, and in some cases as a hybrid of both. At Union, classroom capacities will be reduced in half and lab sections will be spread out to enable smaller lab sizes.

The plans call for strict adherence to mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements in all public spaces on campus, including in reduced-capacity classrooms. Dining services will focus on emphasizing delivery and pre-order options.

The plans also call for spreading students across more housing than a typical year. At Union, students will default into single-person dorms but will be given a chance to opt for a roommate if they want. The college is also looking at reserving off-campus housing options for students. Even with students spread over more dorm rooms, Harris said they will be able to accommodate all students who return to campus.
“One way or another, if every student decides to come back, we have a plan for those students,” Harris said.

Other colleges across the region, including Siena College, Skidmore College, the College of Saint Rose and the University at Albany, have also rolled out plans in recent days outlining what campus will look like if students return in the fall. Those plans, like at Union and RPI, call for wrapping up on-campus fall instruction before Thanksgiving and practicing social distancing.

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The plans also acknowledge the level of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of changes to state and local rules.

Union, which is set to restart classes Sept. 9, will have the benefit of watching as other schools welcome students in the weeks prior, including larger schools with more students from across the country. While Harris said the college is confident in the plan it announced Tuesday, it includes the flexibility to adjust and adapt in the coming weeks and months.

“One thing I can assure you of, it will change,” Harris said of Union’s efforts as the fall term draws closer.

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