- Colleges with an accredited public health program were more likely than others to use remote learning in the fall of 2020 in the face of COVID-19, switching to hybrid or more restrictive methods, like mostly online courses.
- However, these colleges were not more likely to take the most conservative reopening strategy, being fully online without having students on campus. They were only 5.4% more likely to go fully online while having some students on campus than colleges without a public health program, according to a January article published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health.
- The number of coronavirus cases in colleges' surrounding counties, their enrollment numbers, and the political affiliation of the governors in their states were also associated with different coronavirus rules.
Fall 2020 was the first full term affected by COVID-19 in the U.S. Vaccines were not yet available and guidance for educational institutions was scattershot. That inconsistent communication made researchers curious about what factors influenced a college's pandemic planning.
"This project started, admittedly, in a moment of frustration," said Sarah Walsh, associate professor at Eastern Michigan University's School of Health Sciences. "We were all crumbling at the start of the pandemic."
Walsh co-authored the journal article and is a research affiliate of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, a higher education research center focused on crisis management.
The report analyzed course instruction plans and enrollment data from 1,764 four-year institutions C2i tracked. About 10% of the colleges had Council on Education for Public Health-accredited programs.
The analysis broke down colleges' instruction plans during COVID-19 into six restriction levels:
- Fully in-person.
- Primarily in-person.
- Hybrid/hyflex, professor's choice, simultaneous teaching, some variety of methods or a non-specific plan.
- Primarily online.
- Fully online with some students on campus.
- Fully online instruction with no students on campus.
The institutions with public health programs were 63.8% more likely to have a hybrid learning plan or more restrictive plan in place and 66.9% more likely to implement primarily online learning or a more restrictive plan.
Walsh said that having a CEPH-accredited program at a university doesn't necessarily mean a public health faculty member was on its coronavirus response team.
"We don't have data on who was specifically in the room making those decisions," she said. "But there does seem to be some institutional awareness, some increase in precautionary behavior associated with that institution's commitment to public health."
The presence of a public health program wasn't the only factor tied to colleges' plans.
"We did see that bigger schools were more likely to adopt more restrictions," said Walsh.
For every additional 10,000 students a college enrolled, the overall odds of it having higher levels of restriction rose by 12.6%. Walsh speculated that smaller colleges may not have had the infrastructure to pivot to online learning or hybrid classrooms.
Political factors also influenced colleges' response. Colleges in states with a Republican governor were 66.4% more likely to choose to teach fully in person and 58.6% less likely to opt for anything stricter than a hybrid model.
Utilizing relevant faculty expertise can help colleges make informed decisions in response to future crises, according to the article.