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How Maine’s Colby College is striving to keep COVID-19 under control

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many academic institutions across the country are dealing with outbreaks -- or offering only virtual learning in an attempt to prevent them. But one liberal arts school in Maine is seeking to avoid either fate. In partnership with Maine Public, Jeffrey Brown reports on Colby College’s efforts to manage the virus through a robust testing and tracing plan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    While many college classes across the country remain online-only, others are seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases after students return to campus

    One campus in Maine is aiming to buck the trend.

    Jeffrey Brown has our report.

    This story was produced in partnership with our PBS colleagues at Maine Public.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Move-in day at Colby College, with some 2,000 students arriving from across the country and abroad to attend this private liberal arts school in Central Maine.

  • Sam Rosenstein:

    Everyone's very excited to return. I think we have all been cooped up, maybe getting a little tired of our families.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    After being sent home last March because of the pandemic, students were especially eager to return.

  • Henry Harris:

    It's really good to be back on campus, and things feeling somewhat normal.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Normal, except for the masks and the COVID tests they underwent.

    And, several weeks later, on the glorious fall day we visited, with students tossing a Frisbee, eating and talking together outdoors, it was almost normal, except for the extraordinary situation here, shaping up as a kind of test case for coping with COVID.

  • David Greene:

    There's no doubt that I wanted to bring students back, because I know what we do, in terms of teaching and learning is done best when people are in person.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Colby president David Greene and his team put into place an ambitious and comprehensive plan that includes making testing as routine as going to classes.

    In a large tent, students, staff and faculty are tested constantly, three times a week at first, twice a week now.

    Colby sends the tests to the Broad Institute, a research firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, part of a special program for colleges. Results come within 24 hours.

  • Ankeney Weitz:

    By now, most of us have had 10 or more tests, and it's become rather routine.

    Jeffrey Brown So, you're standing here. You have had 10 or more tests?

  • Ankeney Weitz:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Faculty are able to opt-out of in-person teaching. But most, like East Asian studies professor Ankeney Weitz, have chosen to be on campus.

  • Ankeney Weitz:

    Although it's a crisis and it's difficult, there have been certain opportunities available in terms of thinking — rethinking student needs, examining what is absolutely essential for what I'm doing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Senior Sravya Bahudodda, a biology major, returned to campus because she needed the hands-on lab time.

  • Sravya Bahudodda:

    A few days before coming to Colby, I know there were reports that some schools had already sent students back home, so that sort of raised — like, understandably raised my anxieties. But I knew that we were in good hands because of the rigorous testing program that I know a lot of other schools didn't have.

  • Ashlee Guevara:

    I thought that we were going to have more issues with science.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ashlee Guevara, a student government president from Houston, says students are accepting a shared sense of responsibility, which includes limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people.

  • Ashlee Guevara:

    The charge is being led by the seniors being like, don't ruin my senior year.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That really works with students, I mean, even the — especially the new students coming in?

  • Ashlee Guevara:

    Of course there's always going to be people that might step out of line and that might, like, violate the rules.

    I believe in everybody else to be those people to stand up and say like, hey, you're not wearing your mask, or, hey, let's not throw that party.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Colby's plan anticipates there will be cases of COVID. And there have been. Six students and three faculty tested positive to date. Eight have recovered.

    One faculty member who tested positive last week continues to be monitored.

    And that's the key, says David Greene, identifying those infected, quickly quarantining them, and monitoring everyone else who's had contact. One case, he said, easily could have led to many more.

  • David Greene:

    When we have a student who comes in, travels to campus, tests negative at first because the student was infected just before coming to campus, a couple of days later, tests positive, his roommate becomes infected.

    We're able to, by contact tracing, know everybody he's been in contact with over the last few days. He's the only person, in this case, who was infected, because we were able to isolate him quickly, quarantine others.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Stop the spread.

  • David Greene:

    Stop the spread dead.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Quarantining takes place in special housing the college rented. Colby is also building a new hotel in downtown Waterville now used to more safely house students off-campus.

    It's all part of an effort to avoid one worst-case scenario: an outbreak starting at Colby and spreading to this town of 16,000.

  • Hilary Koch:

    Understanding that, if it came into my household, it could be fatal for several of my family members means you take it incredibly seriously.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Hilary Koch, a former teacher now running for state Senate, lives near the campus. One of her sons is high-risk for COVID because he has diabetes. So is her husband, a Colby professor teaching remotely, who was recently diagnosed with a heart condition.

  • Hilary Koch:

    We were concerned that if there were communal spread and the college had to shut down, students could be sent home, but residents and the town would be left to sort of pick up the pieces.

    And I don't know if our hospitals and if our city was really prepared for that kind of response.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So far, Koch says she's pleased with what she's seen.

  • Hilary Koch:

    I see students everywhere with masks on. So, for me, just as a resident here, that makes me feel really, really good.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    College officials say contingency plans to further limit student activities are in place if the number of cases rises.

    Will it all work? Colby has several clear advantages, a small campus in the middle of a sparsely populated state with relatively few COVID-19 cases, engaged students and faculty, the funds for frequent testing, and a willingness to spend them.

    Campus authorities tell us it will cost some $10 million this semester.

    Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage is one outside expert tracking this carefully.

  • Bill Hanage:

    I think the Colby experiment may well tell us something about how possible it is to truly limit the introduction of the virus to a comparatively closed small community, which is monitored extremely carefully. Now, that's important. That's very important.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But, he cautions:

  • Bill Hanage:

    The problem with Colby as making it a representative of everything else is that it's not necessarily going to have this large number of social events which are happening in a sort of uncontrolled fashion outside the school, because it's relatively confined.

    That's a big difference from a lot of places.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Colby president David Greene insists his campus won't let down its guard, and he knows others are watching.

    How much is this a model for other schools, for other places in the country?

  • David Greene:

    Well, I think it is.

    But let's face it. Across this country, that kind of testing should be available everywhere. This should have been one of the first priorities for what our government should have been doing from the beginning, and they didn't do it.

    And so places like Colby and others are picking it up and saying, we are going to figure it out ourselves. We will get this done. And that's really important to show that there is a way forward on this, when, as a country, we haven't been able to do that thus far.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And there's one more factor to watch, of course, even on a gorgeous September day of outdoor classes. This is Maine, and winter is coming.

    The real test, here and elsewhere, may be on its way.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

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