After the summer, Liliana Pokropski was relieved to be back on Benedictine College's bucolic campus from her home in Wilmington, Del.
While coronavirus numbers were high on the East Coast, none of the more than 2,000 students at the college in Atchison, Kan., were displaying symptoms. But when the college tested all of the students in late August, they turned up 66 positive cases.
"Unfortunately, I was a part of the outbreak," Pokropski, who is president of the student body, chuckled through a mask decorated with the school tartan. "I was quarantined along with a huge portion of the students, and it was very shocking."
The pandemic is straining many small American colleges, which have been scraping by for years with declining enrollment and faltering resources. But some — especially those with an overarching mission, be it secular or religious — enjoy distinct advantages over their bigger rivals in fighting the spread of the coronavirus on campus.
"There is this sense that we are in it together," said Barbara Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
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.
Benedictine College in a Christian institution, with an abbey on campus, a prayer grotto, and statues of the Virgin Mary.
Amid the mounting crisis, county health officials wanted the entire student body to quarantine. 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," said 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 said.
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.
Such successes in corralling the pandemic have also been seen at colleges that have secular ideals.
"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.
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," Eikmeier said.
But college students often don't go to sit alone in their dorm, where the temptation to socialize can be irresistible.
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.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The coronavirus pandemic has been hard on colleges and universities. But it turns out some small colleges have distinct advantages in fighting the pandemic. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports that's especially so for schools that have a strong sense of identity.
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FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: At Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., there's an abbey on campus, a prayer grotto. It's hard to miss the Catholic imagery. And when she returned to campus for the fall semester, student body president Liliana Pokropski of Wilmington, Del., was delighted to be back.
LILIANA POKROPSKI: I believe people came back with the expectations that, oh, we're back. Therefore, COVID doesn't exist anymore.
MORRIS: None of the 2,000 students at Benedictine seemed to be sick. None had symptoms. But the college tested them all and turned up 66 positive cases.
POKROPSKI: Unfortunately, I was a part of the (laughter) outbreak. I was quarantined along with a huge portion of the students. It was very shocking.
MORRIS: And Benedictine President Stephen Minnis imposed a partial lockdown, with COVID-positive students confined in hotel rooms.
STEPHEN MINNIS: They now know what happens when they get COVID. I mean, they have to isolate for 14 days. They are sent to a hotel. And the key is not given to them. So that is not very much fun, OK? And they also know that they're responsible for their friends who now have to quarantine. Well, when you're in a small school, that word gets out - around pretty quickly.
MORRIS: Minnis strengthened mask requirements. He ordered students to fast and pray. A month later, the outbreak seemed to be under control.
MINNIS: So it works, right? Prayer works. And penalties work, too, I guess.
MORRIS: Well, something's working because a lot of little schools are holding their own against the pandemic.
BARBARA MISTICK: I think small colleges have significant advantages.
MORRIS: Barbara Mistick is president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
MISTICK: They have a sense of community, so there is this sense that we are in it together.
MORRIS: Mistick says that small-school camaraderie is often stoked by a specific set of moral principles, a school mission over and above education. Many, like Benedictine, espouse religious beliefs. Others are more secular. Grinnell College, in Iowa, Assistant Professor Nicole Eikmeier says social justice holds sway.
NICOLE EIKMEIER: In Grinnell, we talk about, what do we value?
MORRIS: Shielding local elderly people from COVID, for instance.
EIKMEIER: That we're trying to protect that population. And so it's each of our responsibility to do that.
MORRIS: Eikmeier has been developing computer models to predict the spread of COVID at small colleges. And she's come up with some interesting findings. For instance, keeping campus gyms, classrooms and libraries open may work better than shutting them down.
EIKMEIER: The thing is, 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.
MORRIS: But guess what? College students tend not to go sit in their dorm alone unless they have a reason to do that on principle. It can be easier for small schools to make space for social distancing in classrooms and other public areas. But Eikmeier says her models show that there's no substitute for extensive testing. Many schools aren't doing it. It's expensive. And it can be unpopular. So despite the advantages that small colleges do have, unless they're testing, they can only guess how well they're really doing to contain the pandemic.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "GARAGE SHOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.