Dec 11, 2020 | NEWS | By Isabel Hicks | Illustration by Jubilee Rivera-Hernandez

Some of this reporting originally appeared in the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project, a twice-weekly newsletter written by the author and fellow students Miriam Brown and Esteban Candelaria.

As COVID-19 cases soar in El Paso County and across the country, Colorado College prepares to bring around 500 more students back to campus this spring.

The Scientific Advisory Group (SAG), a group of six CC professors from a variety of disciplines, is already planning for a worst-case scenario. The group, which developed CC’s testing strategy last summer and the Campus Alert Levels that launched in November, said that if the college sees over 20 new weekly cases of COVID-19, the plan is to test everybody.

“It would take about a week or so to complete all the testing and contact tracing,” Andrea Bruder, chair of the SAG, said. “During that week, all students on campus and locally off campus would be asked to quarantine so that testing could be completed and contact tracing could be completed.”

That would be the school’s response to Campus Alert Level 4. Currently, CC is at Alert Level 2, which was enacted over three weeks ago. The SAG’s program has four levels that increase as weekly cases in the campus community rise. Each subsequent level calls for a larger portion of students, faculty, and staff to come in for weekly random testing.

In October, CC announced their plans to invite freshmen and some seniors back to live on campus this spring. Rochelle Dickey, the Acting Dean of Students and Acting Vice President of Student Life, said a total of around 1,200 students will be residing in on-campus housing next semester.

“We’re only able to bring back more students for next semester because everybody that’s been here first semester has pretty much been doing what we asked them to do,” Dickey said. “What they knew they had to do for the safety of the community.”

CC students are expected to follow standard risk mitigation protocols for COVID-19, such as mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing. But those measures alone aren’t going to get the college through the spring safely.

The school is also relying on the testing program they ramped up this fall to help decrease the spread of COVID, and plans are in the works to increase testing infrastructure even more come spring.

Students will come back to campus next semester over the course of several days, in order to stagger the number of people moving into buildings. Upon each student’s return, they will be tested again and asked to follow enhanced social distancing protocols until they receive their test results. Dickey said that the college might conclude a person’s enhanced social distancing period with another COVID test as an even greater precaution.

David Brown, another member of the SAG, said that a lot of the group’s planning is centered around trying to avoid what happened last spring and, to a lesser extent, this fall, when students were sent home due to fears of what unmitigated viral spread might mean for the college.

“We haven’t managed to keep the virus completely out of our community, but we’ve kept it at a low enough level that we can kind of stay on top of things and keep functioning as a campus,” Brown said. “That’s a really different place from where we were nine months ago.”

Alert Level Four’s worst-case-scenario quarantine might resemble the quarantines of the Big Three dorms earlier this fall, but the college has taken steps in order to limit the possibility of a large-scale quarantine happening again.

One strategy is the on-campus wastewater testing program, which SAG is working on implementing in off-campus supplemental housing as well.

A person with COVID-19 will show evidence of the virus in their wastewater several days before they become contagious. If COVID particles show up in the wastewater, the SAG is able to link the virus to a particular wing of a building and test all the students living there, before the virus starts to spread.

“That’s where these quarantine policies and the aggressive testing policies are really in place to try to catch that as quickly as possible,” Brown said. “You want to put the fire out when it’s just a little fire, not when it’s a raging forest fire.”

In a similar vein, the college also plans to group students together in a pod-living model. These will consist of groups of up to 10 students who only interact with each other, which makes testing and contact tracing much easier to handle while also reducing the virus’ spread in the community.

In residence halls where multiple rooms all share the same bathroom — South, Loomis, Mathias, and the Old Town dorms — pods will consist of up to 10 students all living near each other and a bathroom for their designated use. Students living in the same apartment or senior cottage will be considered their own pod.

Edwin Hamada, the Assistant Vice President of the Residential Experience, and Kaylee Crivello, the Residential Life Coordinator of Mathias, were some of the masterminds behind CC’s pod living experiment for next semester. In addition to COVID risk mitigation, they said, they hope that the pods will serve as a way for students to find community and form meaningful social connections during the pandemic.

“I think my dream is, when people think about this year’s residential experience, they’re going to remember, ‘oh yeah, we did a lot of fun things with my pod,’ or, ‘I really got to know my residents really well,’” Hamada said.

Hamada and Crivello emphasized that while participating in pods isn’t mandatory, students will still be automatically grouped into one. Students aren’t forced to be involved in pod activities, Crivello said, but there is still an expectation that people follow COVID guidelines of mask wearing, social distancing, and generally trying to limit the number of people that they see.

That said, students won’t only be restricted to forming relationships with people in their pod. They will still be allowed to interact with people in their class, or fellow members of their sports team, for example.

“[Pods are] just another way to make meaningful relationships — safely,” Crivello said.

When updating their housing preferences, students are able to request up to four students who they want to be in their pod. People can expect to have a room and pod assignment by Dec. 17, Hamada said.

Crivello estimated that Mathias will have around 20-25 pods, while Loomis and South will have around 18-20. Residential Advisors will be in charge of overseeing the pods, Crivello said. RAs are expected to put on one “pod program” per block, which can either be masked and socially-distanced, or virtual. Some programs from this semester included slime making and pottery throwing, Crivello said.

As CC finalizes their plans for pod-living and testing protocols, Dickey emphasized that the school can only pull off a successful spring semester if students continue to take the risk of the virus seriously.

“So much of what we do that relies on the integrity and the honesty of our students,” Dickey said. “There’s no way for us to police all of that.”

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