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Colleges are exploding with COVID and have lax testing. One school is keeping cases down.

WATERVILLE, Maine – Colby College students stick out here in this New England town. They’re young, often wearing the school’s blue and white, and almost always in a mask, even when common sense or personal convenience would suggest alternative options.

Walking to a car or waiting for a bus in town? Colby students wear masks.

Running laps around a field? Colby students wear masks.

Reading alone in a grassy patch on campus? Colby students wear masks.

Masks are required by the college at almost all times, which surpasses the guidance issued by the state of Maine. It’s all part of Colby’s COVID-19 protocols, including a testing program among the most stringent in the nation, despite Colby’s remote location and its diminutive size. Students, staff and faculty must submit to a nasal-swab test twice a week. That’s a reduction from three times weekly at the beginning of the semester.

Few campuses, especially liberal arts colleges like Colby, have launched such aggressive plans for combating the virus in-person. Most colleges’ plans boil down to: send students home, lock them down on campus or march forward while case counts continue climbing. The rest largely have stuck with digital instruction.

Even Johns Hopkins University, known for its leading work on infectious diseases including COVID-19, abandoned plans to open its campus with a massive testing program, citing the worsening pandemic.

That makes Colby’s multimillion-dollar effort all the more striking. Its leaders bet the institution’s testing, preparation and location in a relative haven from the coronavirus would keep students safe, perhaps even safer than they would be at home. So far, they have been right.

Colby poured $10 million into its coronavirus response plan, a significant sum for most institutions, but perhaps less so for the elite liberal arts college. Colby’s sticker price, including room and board, is roughly $77,000 a year, although its endowment of roughly $870 million means many students pay far less or even nothing.

The college also has required students to scale back their parties, submit to tracking via a cellphone app, spread out in dorms and bar essentially all visitors from campus. Such requirements during pre-pandemic times likely would have been met with resistance or indifference from students. Now, they’re welcomed.

Just ask Manny Salas, a senior from Houston who risked a cross-country trip to return to the Maine campus. His family, he said, was more worried about his chances of infection if he stayed home. He knew packing into an airplane carried risks, but he was confident Colby’s testing program would protect him.

“Basically, if I got positive or negative, I knew what my options were,” he said. “And if it was in Houston, the options are a little bit fuzzy.”

Manny Salas, 21, of Houston, administers his own COVID-19 test at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Students must take two tests per week as part of the college’s robust program.

Michael G. Seamans, for USA TODAY

That hyper-diligence appears to be paying off. The campus has recorded fewer than a dozen coronavirus cases since the semester began in August.

Students, for their part, are wearing their masks and tightening their social circles. They don’t take the Colby shuttle into town like they used to. (A weekly event at local watering holes known as Colby Night is on hiatus.) Greek life, which has been tied to outbreaks across the country, has been barred at the campus since the 1980s, and sporting events, when they do happen, don’t draw massive crowds like those of the Big Ten or Southeastern Conference.

As for Maine, rates of infection and case counts are some of the lowest in the country. Since the pandemic hit, the state has reported about 5,400 cases. Kennebec County, home to Colby, has reported only 215. In contrast, Clarke County, home to the University of Georgia, just recorded its 5,000th case since February.

What remains unknown is what will happen to Colby and other colleges that have succeeded thus far in keeping case counts down as the winter months draw closer, people move inside and coronavirus fatigue sets in.

Test, test?

On a warm Wednesday morning, Ashlee Guevara lowers her Colby-branded mask about an inch or two to swab the inside of her nose. She puts the swab into a small tube. Her sample and hundreds of others will be shipped to an outside lab, the Broad Institute in Massachusetts. Guevara, the class president, will go to her in-person classes and later pick up pizzas with friends without fear of what the results might say. By Thursday morning, her phone will ping her with the results.

Negative, again.

By this time in the semester, she and roughly 2,000 or so other Colby students have tested negative more than 10 times through the college’s program. Colby administrators say they’ve already conducted about 41,000 tests. Students can keep track of their testing history via the smartphone app they were required to install. (Students and anyone else coming to campus also must use this app daily to report if they have symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever or loss of smell.)

The testing tent, a clearly short-term construction of white plastic and metal rods, lives on a swatch of grassy field. Overlooked by the college’s central tower, students file into the tent all day for their tests. When a USA TODAY reporter visited last week, students were lined up throughout the day for flu shots, a vaccination now required for most people on campus this year.

Colby College senior Ashlee Guevara, 21, of Houston, enters the COVID-19 testing site last week on campus.

Michael G. Seamans, for USA TODAY

It takes Guevara less than three minutes to navigate the testing tent. She signs in at one station, receives a test with her name on it at the next and then performs the test herself under supervision.

At least twice a week, Guevara comes to this tent, prompted by her app. It’s a small time commitment, she said, and the ability to learn in-person is worth the hassle.

In the early days of the pandemic, when Colby and most American colleges sent students home and put spring courses online, Guevara had to share a workspace with the rest of her family in Houston. She would periodically have to surrender it so her family could use the space for cooking. And she found it more difficult to connect with her teachers when she couldn’t talk to them in person.

Colby’s testing approach largely exceeds the college guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency had said in guidance issued in June that mass testing of all students, faculty and staff wasn’t recommended for a campus to reopen. That guidance was later contradicted by Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator, who said universities should have entry testing in place for students when they return to campus.

Either way, Colby College President David Greene said the federal guidance was not enough. Rather than only testing students who have symptoms, as some colleges are doing and as the CDC suggested for a time, Colby’s plan calls for testing everyone. This wider testing is intended to help the college spot asymptomatic carriers, people who have the virus but who aren’t outwardly showing symptoms.

David Greene, president of Colby College, poses for a portrait on the front steps of the Osborne House on the campus in Waterville, Maine.

Michael G. Seamans, for USA TODAY

“If we followed the CDC guidelines as they were laid out, we likely would have many more cases on campus,” Greene said on campus. “If you’re not testing people who are asymptomatic, you will never know who is carrying the virus and what risk you have on campus.”

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary aspects of Colby College right now is how ordinary everything feels on its grounds. Some American campuses are nearly empty, with only a fraction of the typical number of students on campus.

At Colby, more students are on the grounds than normal since international trips were grounded. The administration also scaled back the number of students allowed to live outside of college housing.

The result is a bustling campus, one where students are playing frisbee on lawns, working on their laptops and going to class.

Colby College student Drake Blossfield talks COVID-19 testing

Drake Blossfield a senior at Colby College talks about COVID-19 testing at Colby College and fellow classmates approach to the school year.

Harrison Hill, USA TODAY

They’re still even gathering for social engagements, said Drake Blossfield, a senior from Wisconsin. Normally, the senior apartments are the hot spot for crowded campus parties, Now, social engagements are more personal. Blossfield said he and his roommates even have a thermometer to take people’s temperatures.

So far, he and his friends have hosted a small dance party. They’re planning to gather a few friends for a limited Halloween celebration. They’ll all be wearing “Dad clothes” – think faded jeans and polos – with baby carriers on their chests to liven up the festivities.

Without massive parties, he and his friends don’t have to spend so much time cleaning up empty cans or party detritus. The plea from seniors to the rest of the college, he said, goes something like: “This is our final year. Please don’t ruin it for us.”

Puncturing the small-town bubble

Colby College sophomore Mahika Gupta, 19, left, and junior Annie Sternberg, 20, soak up some rays on campus.

Michael G. Seamans, for USA TODAY

Colby’s success is also thanks to its remote location. Waterville is a town of about 16,600, about an hour and a half north of Portland, Maine’s largest city at roughly 64,000.

As the coronavirus exploded in towns across the country during the summer, the town of Waterville was mostly spared. Some businesses, like restaurants, were briefly affected by state-ordered restrictions earlier in the year, but most of those have been eased.

The State of Maine requires that out-of-towners complete a two-week quarantine or a negative coronavirus test 72 hours before arriving in the state. It’s normal to see people in town without masks. When a USA TODAY reporter checked into a local hotel, none of the front desk attendants were wearing them.

As a highly selective college, Colby draws students both nationally and internationally. That means whatever bubble the town had created over the summer would be punctured with the return of students.

But Colby students, or at least their money, are certainly helping local business owners, said Pat Mulligan inside his Waterville pizza shop, Portland Pie Company.

Anxiety for many local business owners escalated when they saw other colleges try to bring students back to campus, only to shut their doors after a few days when coronavirus spread quickly in the community.

At Colby, those outbreaks haven’t happened.

Outdoor classroom tents fill the green space next to Miller Library, seen in the background, as students take in-person classes at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

Michael G. Seamans, for USA TODAY

Part of that success may stem from the fact that Colby students are sticking closer to campus than ever before. Mulligan said he has noted the absence of chattering sports teams visiting the shop, but students still come in smaller cliques to grab pickup orders or they’ll phone the shop for delivery.

During normal times, dozens of students might flock to the downtown for Colby Night at one of a handful of downtown bars and restaurants. And bar owners such as Charlie Giguere of Silver Street Tavern say they know it’s no longer safe to host the type of gathering that would bring throngs of drunken college students together in tight indoor spaces.

Among larger colleges, a tenuous success

Colby’s success this fall is a bit of rarity. Colleges spent months this summer prepping to reopen, only to watch their plans crumble when students arrived on campus. They partied. They didn’t always wear masks. They spread the virus.

The failures among some large universities have been especially eye-popping. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the first colleges to reopen, conducted in-person classes for only a week before sending students home. Indiana University at Bloomington had to quarantine three-fourths of its Greek houses.

The University of Illinois piloted a new saliva-based method of testing for the coronavirus and has run more than 420,000 tests, but it still had to confine the Urbana-Champaign student body largely to their dorm rooms for two weeks in early September. And local health officials in Boulder, Colorado, home to the University of Colorado, for a time barred 18-to-22-year-olds from gathering in person.

But a few large, state institutions have found cautious success – notably among them Purdue University in Indiana.

Purdue’s president, former Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, put the university in the spotlight as the first major college leader to announce in-person classes for the fall – opening him to skepticism and ridicule alike. People mocked Purdue’s reliance on Plexiglas barriers in particular.

Purdue has since welcomed back 35,100 undergraduates, roughly 9,000 of which were new students. As of Sept. 30, 825 students had tested positive for the virus out of roughly 29,000 tests performed since Aug. 1. Although Purdue hasn’t had to pivot to online instruction, it has quarantined some students in shared living spaces. And as of Sept. 29, only 54 of the university’s 940 available isolation and quarantine beds were in use.

Students sit spaced out by Purdue’s University Hall on Aug. 24 in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Nikos Frazier | Journal & Courier

The situation, though, remains tenuous.

The university’s plan is based largely on adapting quickly and receiving students’ cooperation, said Eric Barker, dean of the College of Pharmacy. Purdue had planned originally only to test all students once when they got to campus, and then after students showed symptoms or were in contact with infected individuals. The college has since adopted randomized testing on campus to better track the spread of the virus.

And early in the semester, it adopted new rules to punish students who flouted social-distancing guidelines. Just this week, Purdue suspended 14 students, 13 of which were athletes – though the college wouldn’t identify which sports they played – for hosting a party that broke the rules.

Daniels, who worked in politics and as a pharmaceutical executive prior to his current role, has been quiet lately about the university. Purdue declined to grant an interview with him.

Barker said university officials are hesitant to offer advice to other institutions, and they’re remaining cautious. They too have seen the outbreaks at other similarly sized colleges.

“It’s really hard to predict,” Barker said. “That’s why I just remind folks it only takes a day or two of widespread cases to shift things.”

Deb Nichols, chairwoman of the faculty senate at the university, said she has been happy to see the university’s new measures, but wonders how long its success can last. Among her concerns: Purdue’s athletic conference, the Big Ten, recently announced plans to play football this fall.

The Pudue University marching band’s Li’l Big Drum is wheeled through West Lafayette on Friday.

Nikos Frazier | Journal & Courier

Tailgating in the town of West Lafayette during normal times would start early and go late, she said. She fears what the mix of alcohol and school spirit could mean for the spread of coronavirus.

“It takes one event to close things down at this point,” Nichols said. “You’re sort of in this state of constant anticipation.”

How long can success last?

Success with the coronavirus has everything to do with a college’s future. Nationally, universities are seeing declining enrollments tied to the virus. And fewer students mean less revenue for cash-strapped colleges. Meanwhile, Colby this fall recorded its largest undergraduate class. The story was the same at Purdue.

Greene, Colby’s president, was unequivocal about the value of in-person classes to the institution. The record-breaking class would have been impossible, he said, “if we were doing it all online or if we only invited one class back, as many colleges have done.”

“Financially, it made sense for us. But it was also the right thing to do educationally.”

Students learn better in person, he said, and the college is better at teaching that way as well. So classes will continue face-to-face for now. Colby started its semester early and plans to send all students home when the Thanksgiving break arrives.

Greene said the challenges for the spring semester will be similar to those in the fall, starting with reconvening students from across the country. There are questions, he said, about how the college may tweak its testing program or when the spring semester should start. And the flu season’s arrival may further strain the college’s resources to respond to the coronavirus.

Part of Colby’s success relies on the college’s exclusivity. It’s a great situation for the 2,000 or so students who managed to get in – the institution’s acceptance rate, according to the federal government, is about 10% – and its students tend to be from wealthier backgrounds than those at state or community colleges. Other colleges must pack campuses with students and can’t afford to be as selective. And they certainly can’t all move to Maine.

As the pandemic drags on, Colby’s success could provide a framework for colleges to emulate, even partially: robust testing, strict mask-wearing, restricted social gatherings and willing students. Its failure may mean even the most abundant precautions and financing can’t save the traditional, and safe, in-person semester until the development of a vaccine.

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