With many universities feeling the financial burden of having vacant real estate and students postponing their education, we have evaluated measures that universities are taking or could consider to reopen safely for in-person classes.
One would think that with today’s technology, studying physically at a university campus is merely a nice-to-have for students and universities. While this might be true for students, it is certainly not for universities. With the privatization and commodification of education, universities have invested millions into real estate to attract high-paying overseas students.
And like any business with large vacant properties, universities are asking themselves: To open, or not to open, for in-person classes. The answer to this question for the University of Manchester was the former. The consequences have been narrated in a well-written Guardian article. The following quote summarizes the essence:
The university’s business model depends on income from fees and rent, they argue, so they didn’t want students to stay away and defer their courses. The resulting “Covid bath”, says Wippell, wasn’t only a danger to students: “students’ families were put at risk, and the people of Manchester. If money hadn’t been a factor that wouldn’t have happened.”
This is not an exception, but rather the norm for many universities, especially in English-speaking countries such as the UK, US, Canada & Australia. Many educational institutions are dependent on students being on campus and have tried to reopen at all cost turning the university campus into a Covid-19 breeding ground. With universities not being able to deliver a satisfactory experience, students are requesting rent and course refunds. The problem is not students’ unwillingness to be on campus. In fact, the opposite as mentioned in an article by the Economist. Four in ten students will cancel or defer their studies in order to get the full on-campus experience. Therefore, the problem lies in the absence of processes and tools to make on-campus studying safe during the pandemic.
Pandemic Response at Universities
We have reviewed Covid-19 policies and measures of over dozen recognized universities (e.g. Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge) and categorized them based on technological sophistication and impact. While this is not a holistic list, it captures the most common ways universities can and are fighting back against the pandemic.
Ideally universities want to land in the ‘Low-Effort High-Impact’ quadrant. This quadrant is characterized by technology-driven solutions since they are more scalable across large student bodies and campuses compared to other quadrants which require more physical intervention.
That it is possible to create a safe study environment leveraging this quadrant has been proven by Singapore’s three universities. Their strategy of containment, decongestion and contact tracing using technology has resulted in no community spread and zero cases.
This stands in stark contrast to the 397,000+ cases and 90 deaths at over 1800 colleges in the US (last updated in Dec. 11, 2020).
The enablers for Low-Effort High-Impact Measures
The enablers for the most effective quadrant (Low-Effort High-Impact) are as often, innovation and new technologies. In this particular case they are proximity and indoor positioning solutions for most of the measures mentioned. Leveraging GDPR compliant solutions such as Proximity Monitor, developed by Forkbeard and made available by EY, universities can conduct pro-active and reactive measures. Examples of pro-active measures are monitoring of social distancing behaviour in particular areas (e.g., canteen), distribution of students to less crowded zones and smart cleaning of frequently visited areas. Examples of reactive measures are contact tracing based on identified cases.
Of course, the solutions proposed in the fourth quadrant will not be effective without testing. However, in this regard no solution will be. Testing is a basic enabler that any university has to leverage despite it being a High Effort measure. Apart from testing, harvesting low hanging fruits such as the distribution of masks and sanitizer should be a given.
In the most optimal scenario social distancing behaviour is monitored with proximity and positioning solutions and wide sewage tests are conducted to identify outbreaks in larger areas. In case of positive Covid-19 findings, frequent individual tests should be conducted and lastly, contacts identified and quarantined using tracing technologies.
However, we do not live in a perfect world and universities who are already financially strained will have to make hard choices on where to invest to reopen for in-person classes, ideally using the least effort for maximum impact.
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