Aug 31 2020

Reopening Higher Education Campuses—And The Social Distancing Tech That Can Help

Some reopened campuses already have several hundred infections. But as of late August, Millersville University had zero cases. What did it do right?

As colleges and universities across the nation reopen campuses during a pandemic, coronavirus cases are rising by the thousands. A New York Times survey of more than 1,500 American higher education institutions revealed at least 26,000 cases and 64 deaths since the start of the pandemic. But some campuses are faring much better than others. Why?

Millersville University, a public university in Pennsylvania, is one institution that had reported zero cases as of late August. Although MU brought a small number of students on campus for a four-week summer program, and most of the students stayed in residence halls, the university was able to prevent an outbreak.

According to Stephen diFilipo, co-chair of the school’s fall reopening implementation team, MU has an extensive campus reopening strategy that covers several areas — from COVID testing and mental health services to student life. Its reopening plan incorporates components such as rapid PCR tests, multimodal classrooms, a data analytics solution called Campus Pulse and a risk mitigation app called LiveSafe.

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover how you can better prepare for safety, accessibility, engagement and security on campus.

“I call it a layer cake,” says diFilipo, who is also MU’s CTO and chief innovation officer. “One layer is Campus Pulse. The other layer is the LiveSafe app. Another layer is trust and respect for each other. You need a lot of layers for a healthy and wholesome campus cake."

Here is a closer look at some key parts of MU’s campus reopening plan.

What Socially Distanced Classrooms Look Like

Before COVID-19, MU had a campus population that would approach nearly 10,000 on a typical day. That is why the majority of MU’s courses will either remain entirely online this fall or adopt a hybrid learning model. The only exceptions are a few courses in departments such as performing arts and health sciences. “I’d say, about a third of our total capacity will be on campus,” diFilipo says.

One of the ways that MU is implementing social distancing on campus is through multimodal classrooms. The university has outfitted 60 of their classrooms to allow both synchronous and asynchronous videoconferencing.

Students can choose to attend class in-person, or they can attend via videoconferencing solutions such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom. Alternatively, they can watch a recording of the lecture at a later time — which is a good way for universities to accommodate international students who cannot return to the U.S.

According to diFilipo, most of the technologies in the classrooms are automated. Faculty can walk in, click one or two buttons and automatically record the lecture under the correct lighting and camera settings.

READ MORE: What do higher ed hybrid learning classrooms look like?

What It Takes to Set Up Outdoor Classrooms

MU has a beautiful campus filled with pockets of green space. It also has a pond that is home to swans, koi fish and red-eared slider turtles. “Faculty can move the course outside if they want,” diFilipo says. “Students can sit under a tree and still have good internet access.”

To make it possible for classes to take place outdoors, the IT department installed new wireless networks at several sites — including the pond, bus stops and other key locations.

The university invested in two Cisco access point technologies — external antenna APs and wireless mesh — to ensure that students can take their courses almost anywhere outside.

The IT team is also installing mesh antenna on taller buildings to give students, faculty and staff wider Wi-Fi coverage outdoors.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to improve online access with hotspots, laptops and planning.

Trust Students — But Use Tech to Enforce Social Distancing

“We are encouraging everyone who comes on our campus to behave safely and to behave properly in terms of wearing a mask and maintaining distance,” diFilipo says. “At the same time, we’re also leveraging some technology to help us with managing and providing that comfortable environment.”

MU chose Degree Analytics’ Campus Pulse as their analytics tool because it offers social density mapping without violating Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act regulations or HIPAA guidelines. It allows the university to know exactly how many people are on campus at any given time without neglecting privacy.

The tool identifies high social density zones through heat maps. This helps MU manage its occupancy limits, which are set according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Pennsylvania state guidelines. “A room can be a zone,” diFilipo explains. “And outdoor space can be a zone. We set the preferred density for that zone. And if we reach that capacity we get notified in real-time.”

Degree Analytics social density heat mapping

Degree Analytics' Campus Pulse identifies high social density zones through heat maps. Source: Degree Analytics

Plus, diFilipo adds, Campus Pulse has a component that can assist the university with contamination tracking if someone gets sick. The tool’s contamination tracking function allows MU to look back and notify anyone the infected person may have been in contact with for more than 10 minutes.

Even higher education institutions with limited resources can use Campus Pulse to effectively leverage data. According to the company, Campus Pulse’s price point is designed to minimize a school’s entry-level investment by offering a per-student pricing model. That’s worth noting because similar solutions often charge by analytics consumption, which can become very expensive.

The low pricing is possible because the platform integrates with pre-existing wireless infrastructure. It retrieves and analyzes data from wireless networks before integrating directly with learning management and student information systems to effectively cover all wireless access points.

What’s more, diFilipo says, the company has been more responsive to email and phone calls than most university vendors. Degree Analytics even sent the university announcement templates that helped the school communicate health and safety guidelines to students.

“They have really thought things through,” he says. “They have gone beyond providing us a technology platform and are as close to a campus partner as I’ve seen — and I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how data analytics can help campuses reopen safely.

If a COVID-19 Outbreak Occurs on Campus

As the higher education sector has learned during the pandemic could always take a turn for the worse, and MU is prepared for that worst-case scenario. Thanks to the IT team, the university is ready to pivot back to a 100 percent remote instructional model if it needs to.

According to diFilipo, the university was able to smoothly transition to remote learning in the spring because it had already adopted cloud computing and virtual desktop infrastructure and was using Cisco Jabber, which helped redirect all office calls to personal phone numbers.

"If something happened on campus again, we could literally forklift the entire operation — from registration to financial aid and almost every back-office function — and just move it off campus,” he says.