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Colgate University's Dean on how the University kept classrooms open all semester amid COVID-19

Paul McLoughlin, Colgate University Dean, joined Yahoo Finance to give an update on how Colgate University has been handling COVID-19 on campus and his outlook as the fall semester comes to an end.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: Heading toward the closing bell, markets are not necessarily flat, but the S&P 500 up 10 points. Dow is up barely 10 points. NASDAQ's up about 90 points.

A lot of college students will be heading home in the middle of the pandemic spiking again in parts of the country. But one university is standing out in its ability to test students and protect its campus. We invite back into the stream Paul-- Dr. Paul McLoughlin. He is Colgate University's dean. Good to have you here.

And I opened up something-- you know, the numbers that you tout for some of the testing. Just since mid-September, you averaged, in one day, 1,529 tests. You have 2,500 students on campus. So put into perspective-- you know, that's not an easy task, what you accomplished. The real question though, is it working?

PAUL MCLOUGHLIN: Yeah, thanks, Adam. Nice to be here. You're right. At the end of the day, there's a financial cost to opening a campus and remaining open as we have in-person instruction, but there's also a human cost. And our staff are tired, I will say that, since I was last here.

Testing that many people that often has allowed us to stay safe and remain open. But also, it is what's necessary. It's allowed us to sort of identify early. When I was here last, that was our plan. And in fact, that's what we ended up doing.

SEANA SMITH: When we spoke last, it was back in September, and students had just been on campus for a couple of weeks. I'm curious just how your testing and how some of your contact-tracing efforts may have evolved here during the semester when we found out a little bit more about the virus, exactly how-- or the most likely places that it's transmitted, and then how you reacted to that.

PAUL MCLOUGHLIN: Yeah, we have learned a lot as the semester has gone on, and that has influenced our activities this term but also our plans for the Spring '21. And as you've said, we-- we've learned a lot about-- as the-- sort of-- nation has reopened lots of campuses and we've had a chance to watch other people and also experience ourselves. What I think we learned is that it wasn't just our testing, Seana. I think it was testing as a part of a comprehensive plan.

Surely, we needed to be able to identify those cases early and isolate those, quarantine others that were identified through close contacts. But it was our students' commitment to the Commitment to Community Health, which is our sort of public health compact. They wore their mask on campus everywhere, into the Village. They were good about not gathering in large groups.

We also had a reopening plan that had them go through a series of gates-- gate one, gate two, gate three-- each which had a little more flexibility and freedom. But it-- for instance, we didn't until gate three allow students to visit one another in other residence halls. We stayed very close to things like direct family units, or roommates, or indirect family units, people who shared a bathroom.

And so I think what I want to suggest is that this plan, it really works when it's a network of particular elements, testing being a really important integral one but not the only one. Otherwise--

ADAM SHAPIRO: You're also--

PAUL MCLOUGHLIN: --we would have likely run out of isolation and quarantine space, as some campuses did, and then need to go to remote.

ADAM SHAPIRO: You're also testing wastewater, and I was curious. I don't want to get too gross with this, but are the wastewater systems contained to each, say, dorm or building, or is it one system? Because if it's one system-- I mean, in New York City, it all goes to the Hudson. So what good is testing the wastewater?

PAUL MCLOUGHLIN: Yeah, I'll keep it clean, Adam. We do actually test by either building or by area. And it really does have-- it does depend on sort of the way we can tap into the sewer system. We can actually collect about 24 hours of waste, a sample of that, and look at the prevalence of the virus in that wastewater.

We had a baseline, of course, at the beginning before students arrived. We then were able to look throughout the semester-- actually, every week. That allowed us to do surveillance testing or random sampling, testing of students, but we also did targeting testing. So when we would see the virus in a particular area, we would then over-sample that particular residence hall in order to identify someone who maybe had the virus and is shedding it through waste but not shedding it to a place where they are, in fact, infecting their peers. That, again, is a really important piece of our testing plan.

SEANA SMITH: One of the interesting, I guess, structural changes that have come of this, Colgate has now made the SAT and the ACT optional for applicants over the next three years. How will this change the traditional admission process and how you look at prospective students?

PAUL MCLOUGHLIN: I think it-- surely, we've always looked at a student's application holistically and comprehensively, tests being just one particular piece. In some ways, I think that the person who's going to look at the application differently, perhaps, is the student. That is, I think they'll look to us in ways maybe they wouldn't have.

We know that standardized tests are not always the best predictor of overall success of a student, and we also know that standardized tests can particularly hurt some demographic groups. We think that this not only is necessary in terms of the pandemic, but I think it will also bring applicants to Colgate. Our applications are up significantly this year.

And I think it will bring people to us who otherwise wouldn't have maybe applied to us because of the standardized test requirement or the cost of that. So I'm actually looking forward to seeing, you know, a richer pool. And we'll continue, with that pool, looking holistically at the very best and brightest for us.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Among your peers, are any of them contacting you, one, about the decision you've made regarding what Seana was just asking you about, but also about the testing? Are you sharing your insight and your policies with others?

PAUL MCLOUGHLIN: Yeah, we-- you know what? I meet often with my counterparts, my other vice president for student affairs both in the New York Six and also in the Patriot League, which is our sort of athletic conference, and others around the country. This is a wonderfully collegial field, and we're all figuring it out together. So we've shared-- I've learned from other campuses. They're learning from us.

I think at the end of the semester, as we look retrospectively at the semester, I think that it's a really wonderful opportunity for the academy to come together. I don't think anyone's trying to hold this close to the vest. I think we're all trying to do what we do well, which is residential liberal arts education. And we all recognize the value of that and want other students to have that across the country. They're not our students, after all, so there's no competition there.

In terms of your other question about the standardized test decision, we're in good company on that. And again, we're seeing that it's really hard to get an SAT or ACT test even to begin with. So in some ways, it's a necessity for institutions like us to make this decision.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Dr. Paul McLoughlin is Colgate University's dean. Thank you for being here. Next time, we want to hit the proposals about some relief for student loan debt. But all the best to you and everybody at Colgate.