Expert: Student engagement key to managing COVID at universities

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Colleges across the country have grappled with ways to safely bring students back to campus to varying degrees of success.

At UC San Diego, which boasts nearly 40,000 graduate and undergraduate students, the average positivity rate has stayed between just 0.17% and 0.43% in October and November. By contrast, San Diego County’s positivity rate during that timeframe was between 2.7% and 6.1%.

The university’s “Return to Learn” program combines masking, robust testing, monitoring, contact tracing, notification and quarantine approaches on top of such innovations as a wastewater testing system and the state’s CA Notify app.

But Chancellor Pradeep Khosla told KCBS Radio’s “Ask An Expert” program Wednesday that many universities have employed such approaches, but not all have had the same level of success.

“There are a lot of people who are doing testing. There are a lot of people who are doing contact tracing, face coverings, all of these things are happening really well… what is it that we have done that is so different?”

As a computer scientist by training, Chancellor Khosla said, “in spite of all the technology, the biggest threat to cybersecurity is the human being. It’s called the insider threat in the community. The weakest link is the human being. And the same is true in this pandemic, the weakest link is the human being or human behavior.”

That is why the university also brought together anthropologists, social scientists, behavioral scientists to figure out a way to manage student behavior, and one of their main strategies was to create student-led marketing and communication teams.

“We let them own the issue and the solution and the implementation, which is very different from most schools where administrators believe that they have the answers,” said Khosla.

The students working on the university’s COVID-19 response have come up with strategies including a regional alliance with other universities in the area including San Diego State University, the University of San Diego and CSU San Marcos, and a now 400-member strong health ambassador team that positively reinforces masking on campus.

“That, in my mind, has been the key to our success.”