This elite college is building a COVID ‘bubble’—where students are tested 3 times per week, and can’t leave campus

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One is a multi-billion dollar colossus with worldwide broadcasts. The other is a small New England college known for its bucolic campus and demanding coursework. On the face of it, the NBA and Amherst College have little in common. Except this: Both organizations have resumed in-person activities amidst COVID by forming a so-called “bubble.”

For the NBA, this has meant isolating players, support staff and broadcasters in a series of luxury hotels in Orlando. The plan has widely been viewed as a success—well into the playoffs no cases have been reported.

For Amherst, the experiment is far newer but the early results are promising. “Things are going well. About two weeks into the semester, only three members of our community have tested positive; that’s out of more than 11,000 tests that have been administered as of yesterday,” according to a college spokesperson. She adds that “a robust testing program, limited residential capacity, smaller classroom occupancies, hybrid learning and remote work, and intensive cleaning regimes” are all being employed to limit the spread of the virus.

If a student decides to return—they also had the option to study remotely this year—there’s a fairly strict regime. An initial test (typically via an at-home mail-in kit) is followed by a quarantine period of 3-5 days, after which they are tested again. The college’s website says that “online programming will be designed to keep students engaged throughout this period, and meals will be delivered to students.” Following that initial period, students will be tested three times per week, says the Amherst spokesperson.

Obviously Amherst’s relatively small size works in its favor when it comes to the bubble approach, notes Mehdi Maghsoodnia, CEO of 1Health.io, which works with a network of partners to distribute COVID saliva tests to organizations such as corporations and universities. “That’s a very effective strategy, but it only works in very small, remote campuses,” he says.

Meanwhile much larger schools, such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have rolled out similarly ambitious testing regimes, including mandatory regular saliva testing and contact tracing for its much larger campus two hours south of Chicago.

Amherst’s COVID dashboard tracks testing in real time, and shows that as of Friday, 11,337 tests had been performed, with three positive results (two students and one staff member). A note to the community regarding the second student read in part, “the student is isolating and is currently asymptomatic and feeling well. In keeping with our contact tracing protocol, we identified two students who were in close contact with the student, and they are now in quarantine. They are all being well cared for. Our cleaning and disinfecting protocol is focused on the places on campus where the student indicated they had been, and those places are being aggressively cleaned and disinfected.”

Maghsoodnia notes that having separate buildings, tents or dorms to quarantine sick students is a big challenge for universities. In a web address to the community, Northwestern University’s President personally took responsibility for not factoring in how many extra empty rooms the school would need to set aside in order to quarantine sick students. He said that was a big reason Northwestern decided this week to move to all-virtual classes for 1st and 2nd year students.

At Amherst, life does look a little different on campus. Dining service is grab-and-go only, most clubs are meeting virtually, and sports competitions are suspended (though some teams are allowed to practice). Furthermore students can only access their own dorms—no visitors allowed. As for socializing? “A number of College offices have increased on-campus activities to take place in a number of rented tents (some outfitted with lights) this fall for classes and outdoor gathering,” the spokesperson said.

A map on the school’s website shows the campus “border” outlined in red, which calls to mind movies such Will Smith’s “I Am Legend,” in which the lead character survives in a post-apocalyptic New York before escaping to find a picturesque survivor colony in rural Vermont. Though it’s not clear exactly how the border is enforced, a spokesperson notes that since school started, “There have been the inevitable instances of people on campus violating some of the rules related to our protective measures, but they are being attended to swiftly.” The school’s guidelines state that “depending on the severity or frequency of the infractions…consequences could ultimately include dismissal from campus housing, although they would be allowed to continue their studies remotely.”

And while things are going fairly well so far, the college is preparing for any number of twists and turns as the semester goes on. “Amherst has plans in place to switch to all remote learning and, in an extreme emergency, evacuate quickly, for example,” said the spokesperson. “We are preparing for as many scenarios as possible, no matter how unlikely they may seem.”

As for students, one big source of student worry seemed to be access to a range of snacks and supplies customarily procured in town. According to Amherst’s website, “The campus store at Schwemmns will carry the common office supplies that students would typically get at Hastings. Students will be able to ask the cashier if an item is not carried and we will make our best efforts to source it.”

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