COVID-19 has derailed education, and everyone wants to return to campus—when it’s safe to do so, and contact tracing may help.

5 ways to get back to campus with safety in mind

COVID-19 has derailed education, and everyone wants to return to campus—when it’s safe to do so

Students are itching to return to college campuses, hungry for social interaction and the collegial experience they’ve longed for since schools abruptly sent everyone home in the spring. But professors and faculty aren’t so excited. Many are anxious about the precautions (or the lack thereof) their colleges and universities plan to take against COVID-19.

The New York Times dubbed faculty concerns a “rising revolt.” Who can blame those who work in academia when college is synonymous with socializing? Will coeds heed social distancing warnings or skip Friday-night parties?

Related content: Back to campus in the fall?

If universities can’t open fully, they’ll likely suffer a huge financial hit, with some students demanding (and getting) tuition discounts and others delaying education. So much of the college experience relies on the convergence of thought, conversation, and — for many — being present.

If only you could place a protective bubble around each person to enforce social distancing and ward off droplets. Unfortunately, that’s magical thinking. A full return in a way that makes students, faculty and staff feel less at-risk requires a new kind of planning and more reliance on technology. While some universities plan to set up COVID-19 screening stations, check temperatures daily and require tests for those with a fever, others may not yet have a full plan.

In reality, to mitigate more risk and help everyone feel more confident in returning to campus, it will take an end-to-end solution that first keeps high-risk individuals — from students and faculty to contractors and maintenance crews — away from college facilities and enables fast, accurate identification of those who may have been in close proximity to someone on campus with the virus. Universities should consider these five steps to help boost safety, mitigate risk and instill confidence.

Mandate daily check-ins. If return-to-campus safety is vital, mandate daily check-ins as a condition of enrollment, just as many universities require students living in residential halls to obtain certain vaccines. Before anyone steps foot on university grounds or leaves a dorm room, they should “check-in” by being required to log their location and destination and to report any symptoms (based on CDC, state, and local guidelines). Daily check-ins also help manage students attending universities that will be online-only. Remote students should have a platform to report symptoms, productivity blockers or class needs, a tactic at least one Ivy League university is already employing.

Checking in shouldn’t take a lot of time or additional devices, either. Aim for a few seconds, tops. It can be as simple as tapping a button on a mobile device or filling out a health assessment from a smartphone. Anyone whose answers raise a flag should stay home. These daily check-ins help leaders understand where people are working and congregating. It can also serve as a screen for vendors and contractors. A “green-light” assessment can signal a “fast pass” entry (you’ll need monitors confirming only those who’ve done their daily check in with a green light are permitted on premises).

Make it as digital as possible. While paper is an option some have used, it’s highly inefficient, and university leaders need data immediately. Some states are requiring such information to be tracked on campuses. The same goes for contact tracing. Human tracers can benefit from additional information gathered digitally to assist them in quickly performing their task. Plus, some people don’t cooperate with manual tracing for fear of getting in trouble. App-based contact tracing allows administrators to stay connected and swiftly identify risk. Digital is more precise and augments the lengthy, manual process of pinpointing potential exposure risk. Someone who has tested positive for the virus may not be able to remember where they were a week ago, but digital tracing can capture that information more precisely and in an unbiased fashion if a user self-identifies. That means universities could quickly and more accurately identify potential on-campus exposure.

Put privacy at the center. Tracing, check-ins, apps…it can feel like Big Brother. It’s up to you to avoid that. Collected data should be kept private. Tech should be confined to university facilities and their immediate perimeters — dorm rooms, student centers, libraries, etc. — without monitoring location. And data should be stored securely and anonymously. For example, in some solutions, tracing is limited to a geographic area (like an office or a campus), and proximity data (not location data) is stored separately from identity information and only paired up to identify users at risk because of reported exposure. Data is deleted after a set amount of time. Privacy-led, geo-fenced tracing is a tactic some universities are considering. What’s more, unlike open tracing tech, geo-fenced tech isn’t as susceptible to major privacy and security flaws.

Quickly identify potential exposure risk — then isolate it. It seems daunting, but it’s possible through wireless technology that captures the closeness of devices through the detection of ambient radio signals (such as from Bluetooth, WiFi). Enrolled students, faculty and staff carry their own smartphone with the app enabled on it. Then if a user gets infected and self-identifies, an authorized administrator can pull that secure data showing who came in close proximity with the infected user. This pinpoints exposure risk to the infected user and, based on school policies, can trigger additional actions to communicate risk. This maintains the delicate balance of privacy and public health and doesn’t interfere with personal lives.

Be open and act fast when needed. Clear and frequent communication about how the technology works and why it’s used can help increase buy-in and give people additional peace of mind. Appeal to interests in making classrooms as safe as possible and communicate benefits and privacy controls. Additionally, when someone is infected and self-identifies, don’t delay action. Develop a game plan — and convey it — in advance.

While you can’t lock everyone inside a virus-proof bubble, this end-to-end thinking — along with following local and state regulations on face coverings and testing, plus taking basic precautions like sanitizing and handwashing — could help university administrators open with more confidence while fulfilling safety obligations to everyone.

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