Northeastern University and other tuition-dependent colleges like Boston University, Emerson College and Boston College are bending over backwards to reopen this fall. Northeastern is spending more than $50 million on testing and retrofitting buildings. The goal, in part, is to reassure neighbors that they are not at risk.
Epidemiologists, though, say it might not be enough to slow the spread on- and off-campus, and the public is about to learn whether these expensive plans pay off.
Northeastern and seven other area colleges WGBH News surveyed would not disclose the positive test rate for shutting down and sending students home. Only Brandeis University said that if positive test rates on its Waltham campus exceed 5 percent for more than a day or two, the school would enter “Code Red.”
Dr. William Hanage, who teaches epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, warned colleges, “Don't underestimate the virus. It’s going to get worse.” Why?
“Students are going to gather off-campus,” he said. “That's what students do.”
Hanage indicated he understands why colleges are not making public their thresholds for shutting down.
“It is the amount of transmission that you are comfortable with, and it will bounce around depending on who you are testing at a particular time,” he explained. “So it's more important to have been thinking ahead and have a number which you have decided already in advance is too high and then be prepared to take action.”
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health says each college campus is unique. As a result, an agency spokeswoman told WGBH News, the state has not established thresholds that would automatically trigger a campus shut-down.