Can COVID-19 mobile apps help to make colleges safer in the fall?

Administration May 29, 2020

At the time of this writing, two thirds of colleges are planning to have an in-person fall semester. Most of them undoubtedly feel some significant measure of risk associated with this decision. College campuses present myriad challenges for isolation and opportunities for infection not to mention other inherent non-health or safety liabilities.

Universities that open for in-person classes and manage health risks effectively will not only have healthier communities, but they will also instill confidence in anxious students and parents.

It’s easy to minimize concerns about opening for the fall by pointing out how well young people tend to weather the impacts of COVID-19. Yes, there are classrooms, parties, and sporting events where there will be less-than-ideal proximity. And even if a significant number of students get sick, they are unlikely to get that sick. Indeed, many will weather the disease with few symptoms at all. Widespread undergraduate student deaths are unlikely, because they represent one of the lowest-risk demographics—but this narrow view doesn’t capture the full scope of the risk. 

Students will commute to campus. They’ll visit their professor’s office hours. They’ll shop downtown. They’ll come home on weekends and holidays. They’ll go on vacation. They’ll attend extended family gatherings. 

Undergrads have a low risk of dying from the disease itself, but their capacity to carry and transmit the virus to others presents a new and unique liability. University decisions will bear much of the responsibility of the impact to college towns and communities. If a broader community outbreak is traced back to a college campus, the damage will be hard to recover from. 

We interviewed many campus leaders over the past few weeks, and a common theme that emerged was that this fall would be a critical public test. It will be a test of planning and execution for the campus administration and staff.

This test will reveal how students, faculty, and communities perceive their university’s response. 

On an even broader scale, it will be a test of how a country of people, whose average salaries have remained constant over many years, perceive the value of in-person instruction.

Some of these social tests will go well, and some will unfortunately go poorly. In the end, universities that take evidence-based action and build trust with students and parents will excel.

Traditional methods to mitigate the spread of COVID-19

COVID-19 tracking apps are starting to arrive. What role can we expect a mobile app to play in managing the spread of the coronavirus?

The main bulwarks against COVID-19 will ultimately be vaccines, testing, contact tracing, and healthy behaviors. Vaccines won’t be viable for many months (at best), so we can effectively remove them from the equation for the fall semester.

Campus testing capabilities will vary widely. The most fortunate universities are attached to well-funded medical facilities that serve as the central testing infrastructure for their states. For these campuses, testing the entire university on a regular basis is feasible. Other universities are far more removed from testing facilities, or are more cost constrained. They may not have the capabilities to test even a small fraction of their attendees.

The critical gap that COVID-19 mobile apps help to fill

If you want to #wellactually someone during your next Zoom cocktail party, then we need to get specific about our terminology. Contact tracing is a trained, in-depth professional discipline to track down, catalog, and contact every known individual that an infected person has recently come in contact with. New technology is using GPS and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) capabilities in modern smartphones to track and approximate proximity between individuals, so that potential contacts can be identified once a person discovers that they’ve been infected. 

These new digital techniques have their own set of issues, and they’re by no means a replacement for traditional contact tracing—at best they’re a valuable supplement. We refer to these new techniques as proximity tracking and exposure notification. For the sake of correctness, you should not refer to these new smartphone-enabled techniques as “contact tracing”. 

The important thing to keep in mind about proximity tracking and exposure notification is that they can quickly inform users they’ve been in contact with a known COVID-19 carrier which is a compelling argument to self-quarantine or practice healthy behavior. 

Mobile apps will likely play an important role in behavior—everyone will need additional guidance and motivation in order to stay vigilant throughout the semester. All the testing and contract tracing in the world won’t help if distancing, masks, and hand-washing go out the window.

Opportunity

Mobile apps that track the spread of the coronavirus will be one of the most valuable tools colleges and universities of any size will have to mitigate risk among their student population and surrounding community.

We believe that the best institutions will rise to the challenge to demonstrate what they’re capable of in the face of adversity and their reputations will be positively impacted for years to come. 

Colleges and universities are centers of critical thinking, and mental and habitual self-discipline. They’re also surrounded by communities that are filled with a sense of pride and a desire to do good. 

Higher education is in a unique position to demonstrate to the world how safety and progress don’t have to be mutually exclusive. With software, science, and community, leading universities can show others how to effectively mitigate the spread of the coronavirus while still delivering valuable education to students.

Did you like this post? Share It!