COVID-19 Coverage : See how the pandemic is impacting the world of higher education.
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Higher Ed on the Front Lines

May 7th, 2020

By Michael T. Nietzel

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Institutions nationwide are going the extra mile to help their communities handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Colleges and universities were among the first organizations to repurpose their resources to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. On the front lines and behind the scenes, campuses were quick to answer calls for help by:

New examples of institutions stepping up to join the battle continue to emerge every day. Here are some examples.

Trials, Tracking, and Testing

At academic health centers, researchers are testing medications that may be used to treat COVID-19.

Surge Hospitals and Special Housing

Several institutions—including Tufts University, Middleburg College, and New York University—converted campus dormitories to temporary hospitals in order to create additional beds for COVID-19 patients or care for individuals displaced from hospitals due to the surge of COVID-19 patients.

The University of Kentucky readied its indoor football practice facility to become a temporary hospital, while the University of Vermont and University of Mary, Bismarck, N.D., have made gymnasiums available to serve as surge hospitals.

A number of institutions are offering major campus facilities to help communities cope. Oakland University, Rochester, Mich., turned its available dormitory rooms into housing for health care workers who needed a safe place to stay. Other institutions, such as the University at Albany, are offering parking lots to be used for drive-thru virus testing.

PPE and Critical Supplies

Across the nation, robotics centers and departments of physics and engineering ramped up their capacity and started producing personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies, such as ventilators, that hospitals need urgently.

Scores of institutions, both large and small, have donated PPE—including masks, gowns, coats, and gloves—to hospitals and health care workers.

Major research universities are turning to their temporarily shuttered research labs for inventory. MITthe University of Chicago, and Harvard collected spare PPE and donated it to hospitals and clinicians in need.

Smaller colleges also make their local communities a priority. Missouri Southern State University gathered excess PPE from its athletics department and various health care programs and donated it to local hospitals in Joplin. Salisbury University, Md., did something similar for its community.

Student Volunteers

At many institutions, students are volunteering to help public agencies, community organizations, and health care providers. These examples illustrate the boundless creativity and energy of today’s collegians.

At Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa, the esports team turned over the processing power from 12 arena computers to help boost a network of PCs working together as an international supercomputer to simulate COVID-19 proteins.

Students from colleges and universities across Massachusetts are pitching in to help the Community Tracing Collaborative, a virtual call center, trace individuals who might have had contact with people who tested positive for the virus.

Graduate students in public health at the University of Arizona are assisting county health departments by answering the overflow of calls from the public about the pandemic.

The Need for Accurate Information

Several universities arranged to expedite the graduation of students in health care professions—such as nursing, osteopathy, and medicine—so they could join clinicians in the field as soon as possible.

Epidemiologists, public health experts, and infectious disease specialists, most of whom hold university appointments, are providing empirically based advice and opinions about the virus, its treatment, and the risks for its return to a public that urgently needs accurate information.

This contribution is vital since it helps counteract any misinformation regarding the pandemic.

Leadership Plays a Crucial Role

Campus leaders deserve credit for their willingness to mobilize the resources of their institutions as they continue to balance several priorities:

MICHAEL T. NIETZEL is president emeritus of Missouri State University, Springfield, and author of Coming to Grips with Higher Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

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