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Despite Strains, Small Colleges Find Advantages In Dealing With COVID-19 On Campus


The coronavirus pandemic has been hard on colleges and universities. But it turns out some small colleges have distinct advantages in fighting the pandemic. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports that's especially so for schools that have a strong sense of identity.


FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: At Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., there's an abbey on campus, a prayer grotto. It's hard to miss the Catholic imagery. And when she returned to campus for the fall semester, student body president Liliana Pokropski of Wilmington, Del., was delighted to be back.

LILIANA POKROPSKI: I believe people came back with the expectations that, oh, we're back. Therefore, COVID doesn't exist anymore.

MORRIS: None of the 2,000 students at Benedictine seemed to be sick. None had symptoms. But the college tested them all and turned up 66 positive cases.

POKROPSKI: Unfortunately, I was a part of the (laughter) outbreak. I was quarantined along with a huge portion of the students. It was very shocking.

MORRIS: And Benedictine President Stephen Minnis imposed a partial lockdown, with COVID-positive students confined in hotel rooms.

STEPHEN MINNIS: They now know what happens when they get COVID. I mean, they have to isolate for 14 days. They are sent to a hotel. And the key is not given to them. So that is not very much fun, OK? And they also know that they're responsible for their friends who now have to quarantine. Well, when you're in a small school, that word gets out - around pretty quickly.

MORRIS: Minnis strengthened mask requirements. He ordered students to fast and pray. A month later, the outbreak seemed to be under control.

MINNIS: So it works, right? Prayer works. And penalties work, too, I guess.

MORRIS: Well, something's working because a lot of little schools are holding their own against the pandemic.

BARBARA MISTICK: I think small colleges have significant advantages.

MORRIS: Barbara Mistick is president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

MISTICK: They have a sense of community, so there is this sense that we are in it together.

MORRIS: Mistick says that small-school camaraderie is often stoked by a specific set of moral principles, a school mission over and above education. Many, like Benedictine, espouse religious beliefs. Others are more secular. Grinnell College, in Iowa, Assistant Professor Nicole Eikmeier says social justice holds sway.

NICOLE EIKMEIER: In Grinnell, we talk about, what do we value?

MORRIS: Shielding local elderly people from COVID, for instance.

EIKMEIER: That we're trying to protect that population. And so it's each of our responsibility to do that.

MORRIS: Eikmeier has been developing computer models to predict the spread of COVID at small colleges. And she's come up with some interesting findings. For instance, keeping campus gyms, classrooms and libraries open may work better than shutting them down.

EIKMEIER: The thing is, if you close the library and a student would normally go to the library and you assume that they go back to their dorm during that time and sit alone, then that's a great strategy to reduce the spread.

MORRIS: But guess what? College students tend not to go sit in their dorm alone unless they have a reason to do that on principle. It can be easier for small schools to make space for social distancing in classrooms and other public areas. But Eikmeier says her models show that there's no substitute for extensive testing. Many schools aren't doing it. It's expensive. And it can be unpopular. So despite the advantages that small colleges do have, unless they're testing, they can only guess how well they're really doing to contain the pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "GARAGE SHOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.