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Ohio universities tiptoe back into the classroom

Rob Moore

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Mathematical Sciences Building at Bowling Green State University (Photo by Anthony Crider)

With school back in session, Ohio’s eyes are on the state’s 3,600 schools, but also its nearly 100 public and private universities. As universities have scrambled to put together new policies and procedures in place to somehow reconvene an institution that is, in essence, a nine-month string of consecutive mass gatherings, data transparency has become a big piece of the puzzle to both ensuring student safety and convincing the public of the work they are doing.

Ohio State University’s “Safe and Healthy Buckeyes” tracker is a good case study for how transparency is being carried out and gives us some insight into how COVID-19 is spreading at Ohio’s largest university. As of Sept. 4, 5.8% of student tests were coming back positive in the past week.

Is this positivity rate good? Well, it depends on who you ask. The key performance indicator targets have shifted significantly over the course of this pandemic, with case and hospitalization rates taking center stage early on, a variety of indicators culminating in a county-by-county color code after state restrictions were lifted, and most recently driven by a focus on positivity rates among tests taken.

The turn to positivity rates kicked off in May when the World Health Organization recommended countries should remain at 5% or lower positivity rate for two weeks before “reopening” their economies. In an interview with “Face the Nation,” however, United States Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that positivity rates of 10% or lower — twice the World Health Organization guidelines — should be what parents should look for in their community as schools reopen.

When it comes to positivity rates, Ohio has fared better than the country as a whole. The United States briefly dipped below 5% positivity rate in June but spiked up to 8.5% positivity in July and has yet to get below 5% positivity since then despite steady progress throughout August. Ohio, on the other hand, has generally been able to keep its positivity rate under 5% since July, reaching a low of 3.1% earlier this month.

What does all this mean for the situation on Ohio campuses? Well, 5.8% positivity rate is not something to necessarily be happy about. Ohio State’s total student positivity rate since August 14th is 3.7%, which is much better than 5.8% and good by anyone’s standards, but the more recent 5.8% rate suggests cases are on the rise among students.

While it’s easy to dwell on the negatives of school reopenings, it’s important to also ask ourselves what we get from school reopenings. In June, I wrote about the lingering human capital impacts that students will feel from COVID-19 school closures. If current research on the impacts of schooling on child development is correct, however, then older students stand to lose much less than younger students from lost days of schooling, even assuming virtual learning is the same substitute across different age ranges, which it likely is not.

Overall, if viral spread can be controlled, higher education is a valuable investment for the people involved. That being said, higher education institutions have more infrastructure and tools than K-12 institutions to facilitate socially distant learning and less ability to hurt student outcomes down the road. Smart institutions will put this to good use and balance limiting community spread with continued human capital development for students.


Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a public policy analysis firm based in Columbus. Moore has worked as an analyst in the public and nonprofit sectors and has analyzed diverse issue areas such as economic development, environment, education, and public health. He holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Denison University.

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