Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, is bucolic. There’s an abbey on campus, a prayer grotto, and statues of the Virgin Mary. In August, student body president Liliana Pokropski was relieved to be back on campus from her home in Wilmington, Delaware.
“Unfortunately, I was a part of the outbreak,” Pokropski chuckles through a mask decorated with the school tartan. “I was quarantined along with a huge portion of the students, and it was very shocking.”
After all, none of the 2,000 students at Benedictine were displaying symptoms of the coronavirus. But when the college tested all of the students in late August, they turned up 66 positive cases — a mounting crisis.
Atchison County health officials wanted the entire student body to quarantine. Benedictine College president Stephen Minnis resisted. He instead imposed a partial lockdown with sick students confined in hotel rooms for 14 days. He says it was a major wake up call.
“They now know what happens when they get COVID,” says Minnis. "They are sent to a hotel and the key is not given to them, so that is not very much fun."
Minnis says they also know they are responsible for their friends who have to quarantine. "When you’re in a small school, that word gets out pretty quickly," he says.
Minnis also strengthened mask requirements, imposing fines for violations. In keeping with the mission of the school, he ordered students to fast and pray. But as this was going on, school facilities were open, students attended classes in person, and sports teams assembled for practice.
Within a month, the outbreak had shrunk to a handful of active cases.
Small, rural colleges around the country are finding some success in corralling the pandemic.
“I think the small colleges have significant advantages,” proclaims Barbara Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
“There is this sense that we are in it together,” says Mistick.
Mistick says that small school camaraderie is often stoked by a specific set of moral principles — a school mission over and above education. The shared sense of purpose may make it easier for smaller schools to get students to comply with university policy on things like mask usage and social distancing.
Many small colleges like Benedictine espouse religious beliefs, but others are more secular.
“At Grinnell, we talk about what do we value,” says Nicole Eikmeier, an assistant professor of computer science at Grinnell College.
Eikmeier says ideals of social justice at Grinnell steer the conversation about COVID-19 and responsibility toward the students' duty to shield senior citizens in Grinnell, Iowa, from the pandemic.
“We're trying to protect that population, and so it’s each of our responsibility to do that,” Eikmeier says.
Eikmeier has also been attacking the pandemic analytically, developing computer models to predict the spread of COVID at small colleges. She has come up with some interesting findings. For instance, keeping campus gyms, classrooms, and libraries open may work better than shutting them down.
“If you close the library and a student would normally go to the library and you assume that they go back to their dorm during that time and sit alone, then that's a great strategy to reduce the spread," Eikmeier says. "But, guess what? College students tend not to go sit in their dorm alone unless they have a reason to do that."
It can be easier for small schools to make space for social distancing in classrooms and other public areas, providing better controlled and safer environments for students.
Eikmeier says her models show that there is no substitute for extensive testing. But many schools aren’t doing it. It can be unpopular with students, and it's expensive — upwards of $50 per test for many schools.
At Benedictine, students now need to show symptoms before getting a coronavirus test, but most college students with COVID-19 never develop symptoms.
So now, the school has a handful of active COVID-19 cases, and even with its advantages, a campus full of unknowns.