Weeks after officials first detected the novel coronavirus in the U.S., many colleges and universities nationwide announced, in astoundingly rapid succession, that they would ditch face-to-face classes in favor of online instruction.
Some institutions ordered students to stay home after spring break, while others, such as Harvard University, told on-campus residents to vacate their dormitories.
The tactic university officials are using is called social distancing. It has somewhat of a buzzword as the new coronavirus, and the respiratory illness it causes, COVID-19, has taken hold in six of the world’s seven continents.
More than 1,300 COVID-19 cases and at least 38 related deaths have been recorded in the U.S., according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University.
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Social distancing refers to the practice of staying away from large gatherings and crowded areas, such as shopping centers and stadiums. In a university setting, it could apply to classrooms and residence halls, in which students study and live in close quarters.
It also involves keeping enough distance between people to “reduce the risk of breathing in droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes,” an advisory from Harvard Medical School states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends about 6 feet of space.
Health experts say social distancing has proven to be one of the most effective means of stemming the proliferation of similarly virulent diseases. Institutions have said they are taking steps to remove students from campuses in order to minimize the virus’s impact.
The trend began last Friday, when the University of Washington said it would have students on all three of its campuses take their classes and exams remotely. Other colleges and universities followed in the coming days. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 200 institutions said they are moving classes online, and some requested students leave campus, according to a crowdsourced list created by Georgetown University scholar Bryan Alexander.
Such decisions are likely borne out of caution and based on data, said Suzanne Willard, associate dean for global health and a clinical professor at Rutgers University’s School of Nursing.
Willard, who has extensively studied the HIV epidemic, likened the outbreaks of the coronavirus to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, in which panic was high and few grasped how the virus was transmitted. The CDC said it is still learning exactly how the coronavirus spreads.
Absent a complete picture of the disease, colleges are trying to be responsible, Willard said, even though they can’t control every factor. Administrators can ban study abroad travel, but they can’t stop students from going on spring break trips, she said.
“We as a society, we’re into quick fixes. You go to the doctor, get a pill for a runny nose, and it’s over and done with,” Willard said. “But that’s not how illnesses work. We need to be patient and think and understand it a bit more.”
Social distancing can be a powerful tool while institutions, along with health and government agencies, work out their responses.
The efficacy of social distancing was illustrated in a study of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed between 500,000 and 675,000 people in the U.S.