by James A. Bacon
It is a legitimate question to ask: Which of Virginia’s colleges and universities are doing the best and worst job of managing the COVID-19 epidemic? Over the weekend, I posted some numbers showing that Virginia Tech, James Madison University, and the University of Virginia had posted the largest numbers of confirmed COVID cases in the state. But the raw numbers don’t tell us much by themselves. As large public universities, those three institutions have among the biggest student bodies. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to compare the colleges after adjusting for the number of students enrolled. That’s what I’ve done here.
In the table I have expressed the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, as reported by the New York Times last week, as a percentage of average full-time-equivalent enrollment, as reported by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). Let me be clear: The resulting number is not a percentage of the study body that has been confirmed to have COVID. The confirmed-case numbers also include faculty and staff. At UVa students comprised a large majority of COVID cases but not all. The same pattern likely holds true at other institutions. Consider the percentage as a rough relative measure of the prevalence of the virus at each campus.
This table reveals that the incidence of COVID-19 was the worst at Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville. (By way of comparison Longwood University, also located in Farmville, experienced less than one third the number of confirmed cases.)
The table also shows that JMU had the second-highest incidence of confirmed cases. Because JMU is more than 20 times larger than Hampden-Sydney, the impact was far more profound.
Other observations worth noting:
- UVa appears 9th highest on the list of 35 institutions, seemingly but not necessarily at odds with President Ryan’s portrayal of the university’s response as heroic.
- Virginia’s historically black colleges and universities — Norfolk State University, Virginia State University, and Hampton University — stand out for the extremely low incidence of confirmed cases.
- Eastern Virginia Medical School — a medical school! — was in the middle of the pack for COVID cases. Wouldn’t one expect doctors and aspiring doctors to be more conscientious about preventing the spread? Or do we cut them slack because they were more likely to be exposed?
Though more refined than the previous table I published, one should be careful about using this data to grade how effectively college administrations responded to the COVID challenge. One factor to consider: How aggressively did the various institutions test for the virus? The more tests they administered, the more confirmed cases they identified but the more effectively they could combat the spread.
In the case of UVa, for instance, the university ramped up its testing capabilities in concert with a contact tracing program and the setting aside of residential buildings for isolation and quarantine. One cannot rule out the possibility that the high number of confirmed cases there reflects a more vigorous virus-fighting strategy. Conversely, perhaps institutions with low numbers just weren’t testing. This information is crucial for reaching a judgment.
Another factor is how committed the institutions were to maintaining in-person instruction. Each institution rolled out a unique blend of online, hybrid and in-person classes. If one university conducted most classes online, one would expect it to experience fewer infections than a university that taught more in-person classes. One must consider the tradeoffs between fighting the virus and the quality of instruction.
The purpose of publishing this data is not to condemn institutions that have a higher incidence of infection or praise those with a low rate. The purpose is to provide students, parents, and boards of visitors a starting point for asking tough questions and holding administrators accountable for performance. In UVa’s case, Ryan bragged about the great job his team had done without providing any context, and the Board of Visitors complimented him for a job well done without asking for any. University stakeholders should demand more.There are currently no comments highlighted.