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IDEAS

Bringing college students back to Boston feels dangerous. I’ll be teaching them in person anyway

The coronavirus testing regimens on university campuses seem suboptimal, but they might be as good as things get right now.

Northeastern University plans to bring students back on campus and test them and staff for COVID-19 frequently.
Northeastern University plans to bring students back on campus and test them and staff for COVID-19 frequently.Rodrique Ngowi/Associated Press

In 1890, my great-grandfather built a one-room schoolhouse on his eastern Washington homestead. His son became a school principal, and his son, my dad, a professor of education at the Ohio State University. Education is something of the family business for my people, like farming or mining, but with less of a chance to appear in a multi-generational beer ad.

I did my best to avoid this patrimony, but about 10 years ago I accepted a position teaching journalism at Northeastern University. I have yet to regret the decision; my students have been, almost without exception, conscientious, idealistic, and ambitious. They are a sure antidote to any pessimism one might feel about the future of our country, and I often say I would fight a war for them.

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It feels like I might have to this fall.

Boston is the site of one of the world’s great mass migrations, as something north of 200,000 students descend on the metro area every September. To put this in perspective, that’s more than twice the number of people who deluged California during the gold rush of 1849. We don’t have as many university students as New York or Los Angeles, but we have the largest proportion of students of any large American city.

In most years, the influx of students is both an engine of the local economy and a source of creativity and innovation. This year it’s more likely to be a source of infection. This weekend was the deadline for Northeastern faculty to apply to teach remotely. I won’t lie: It crossed my mind. I’m asthmatic and have a mild arrhythmia. I could make a case. But it seemed difficult to know what kind of risk I really would be taking — what kind of risks all of us will be taking. Being a journalist, I decided to investigate. I hired three former students to help me canvass the 16 largest institutions of higher education by enrollment, from Boston University to Wentworth Institute of Technology.

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Our goal was to determine how many people will be at our collective doorstep in September, and how they would be screened for COVID-19. It seemed like the kind of simple number everyone hereabouts might want to know. Our findings were inconclusive, which is disturbing.

First, the size of the student influx will be considerably smaller this year — Harvard, UMass-Boston, Berklee, Simmons, and Lesley will all go virtual this fall, which should mean about 60,000 fewer enrolled students. MIT will ask all but seniors to stay home. Given that in 2018 nearly 20 percent of college students in Boston hailed from today’s coronavirus hot spots of Florida, California, and Texas, this offers some relief.

But our fact-finding mission got murky from there. Harvard, for instance, expects some 40 percent of its undergraduates to come to campus, even if they do attend classes online. And behemoths like BU, Northeastern, and Tufts will welcome the majority of their students back this semester, as will Bentley, Boston College, Emerson, and Brandeis. Northeastern, for instance, expects roughly 75 percent of its full-time students to attend courses in person, though administrators noted that even that figure can change day by day.

“I would say I am very, very concerned,” says Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist, and a proponent of a totally new approach to testing that is beginning to win support. Mina believes that states should buy and distribute hundreds of millions of cheap tests. Their accuracy isn’t perfect, but they’re good enough to monitor the spread of the coronavirus if given en masse. “The idea is to shift from diagnostics to surveillance,” Mina says. “You’re not going to a doctor to find out what’s wrong with you. You’re testing yourself to identify community transmission.”

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None of the universities on our list have enacted such radical screening measures. Instead they’ll be testing students and staff at least once weekly, and in many cases, more often. Even so, the truth, as my small team discovered, is that no one knows exactly how many people are coming to Boston in the coming weeks, and we will all be largely dependent on their individual vigilance in order for us to avoid a return to the dark days of April.

There’s an awful irony here, as much of the demographic that can best adapt to online learning, college students, will return to campus. The demographic that can least afford to be away from school and is the least likely to become a vector for the disease — elementary students — will be largely kept home. It is another in 2020′s long and dispiriting list of policy failures.

Despite all of this, I declined to teach remotely. My reasoning is based on both my heart and my brain. My heart tells me that, having just completed a year of sabbatical, I have a selfish urge to be back behind the lectern. Teaching — learning — is a physical act, a performance in which the audience is inextricable from the performer, a duet of sorts: the inspired improvisation that brings home a complex idea; the half-raised hand that may represent widespread confusion among one’s students. There’s a reason why the basic format of the classroom hasn’t changed since Socrates.

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But my other justification is logical. A. David Paltiel — a Yale epidemiologist who recently worked with Massachusetts General Hospital’s chief of infectious disease, Rochelle Walensky, to create recommendations for university reopenings — points out that students pose a risk of transmission wherever they are, and it may well be the case that the lesser risk is placing them in a controlled environment in which they receive frequent screening. Paltiel and Walensky, like Michael Mina, think universities should use frequent, cheap, less-accurate tests that can return results in real time. In almost every instance a false negative would be caught the next day, before a super spreading event can take place.

Northeastern, Tufts, and the other universities planning on bringing students back to the classroom fall short of this mark, but not by much. Northeastern is requiring all its students to quarantine for two weeks before coming onto campus, at which point they will be tested three times before entering a classroom. After that they will be tested every five days, using the so-called “gold standard” of genetic, or PCR, testing, which is extremely accurate. Northeastern has ramped up its life sciences department to process its own tests, to the tune of 5,000 tests per day. Not too shabby. The Broad Institute, a research center that is operated by Harvard and MIT, expects to be able to process up to 100,000 tests a day, and its capacity will be used by such schools as Lesley and Tufts.

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Far from posing a threat to the communities in which these students live, letting students come back under a fairly rigorous testing program will allow the university to act as a kind of early warning system for Boston, identifying clusters of cases before they become hot spots, says Northeastern’s vice provost for research, David Luzzi. Mina thinks that claim might go a bit too far, but he agrees the testing that’s planned should go a long way toward keeping risks low, assuming adherence to other mitigation measures.

Indeed, I’ve spent hours in long lines this summer waiting to be tested in private clinics, only to be told that test results will take 10 to 14 days, so the level of rigor promised by these large institutions seems like a tantalizing dream. Starting Monday I will have access to COVID-19 test results in 36 hours.

The systems being offered aren’t ideal, but they’re probably the best we’re going to find outside of the NBA bubble. Come Sept. 8, students will return to my campus. I’ll be there, in the classroom, well-masked and ready to greet them.

Corey Dockser, Seamus McAvoy, and Ava Sasani contributed reporting. Jeff Howe is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern. Follow him on Twitter @crowdsourcing.