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How the University of Denver is Planning for a Fall of Ethical Contact Tracing and COVID Preparedness

Written by Stephen Eichinger on Aug 27, 2020

Related content: Higher Education, Graduate Programs, Digital Education

August is here, which means it’s back-to-school time. But this fall’s return to class will not look like it has in years past. Academic institutions are choreographing a delicate dance of social distancing, contact tracing, online and hybrid learning, and, when necessary, quarantining. It’s a herculean task, and it requires thoughtful yet flexible planning as circumstances can change in an instant. Educational leaders are boldly undertaking the challenge and adapting their strategies to the constantly evolving situation—all while keeping their focus on providing a high-quality education experience for their students.

Karen Riley, dean of The Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver, is one such tenacious individual. In addition to leading the college, she serves as the strategic director for health initiatives at the university, and she chaired the committee that selected a contact tracing vendor for the fall.

Here she shares how the University of Denver has prepared for the fall, what ethical contact tracing is, and what other educators should keep in mind as the higher education industry navigates a new virus-induced normal.

What were the University of Denver’s guiding principles in making a plan for this fall?

There were two basic principles: 1) The health and safety of everyone in the DU community. We need our faculty, staff, and students to be fit and healthy. 2) We want to provide an exemplary educational experience for our students.

Regarding that second point, we have learned a great deal from our work with 2U around quality online education. Quality doesn’t mean that a professor is simply going to stand in front of the webcam and lecture at the class for three and a half hours. We’ve taken a very thoughtful and deliberative approach to how we’re going to offer quality education given the circumstances. Thankfully, when we started with 2U, we hired our own instructional designer at Morgridge College to work with our faculty on all aspects of instructional design. They’re ahead of the curve.

What should schools consider in regards to virus testing/contact tracing?

At DU, we have developed a comprehensive action plan that starts with quarantining and then testing for the community before they arrive on campus.

We’re also implementing ethical digital contact tracing. We are encouraging people to download an app for their mobile devices that uses Bluetooth technology and a geographic information system to determine where you are on campus based on your device’s location. We did this so that when students or faculty are in the same class and one of them gets sick or tests positive, the data will show the other devices that were close enough to the sick person’s device. An alert is then sent to those other devices that an individual (it does not reveal names) who has been in close contact has tested positive and that those folks who received the alert should quarantine or get tested.

We are, of course, strongly committed to privacy, so this approach is HIPAA compliant. The data are not connected to any student’s name, are not stored permanently, and disappear after 45 days. When we say ethical we mean that we will not be stigmatizing anyone, and we will not be tracking students’ whereabouts. It’s a new technology that allows us to proceed quickly at a scale that is required to open up a large organization like our university.

The University of Denver’s plans include hybrid education. What are some benefits/advantages of this model?

There are aspects of the online space that are allowing us to do some really cool things this fall; in fact, one of these developments was inspired by insights I gathered from fellow university partners in the 2U network.

At DU, we have a number of clinics related to our education and psychology programs, which allow our students to get hands-on experience in their chosen fields. These clinics have in the past been a bit siloed, so we have been discussing how they can collaborate more so that our students can understand interdisciplinary work and benefit from a state-of-the-art continuum of care through an integrated approach.

I learned through the 2U network that we could institute this interdisciplinary method virtually. I brought the idea to our clinic committee, and they ran with it. They have since developed case studies that all clinic students, regardless of discipline, will work on together on a quarterly basis. And so our education students will be learning about the need for clinical psychology assessments, counseling, and other matters as a result of this collaboration.

I don’t know that we would have been able to do that as well, or maybe even at all, had we not thought about doing it virtually, which came from connections within 2U.

What advice would you give other deans and higher education leaders about this fall?

We are facing not just one pandemic but two: one related to COVID-19 and another related to racial and social injustice. To combat these challenges, you have to keep your priorities at the forefront of your thinking. At DU, that’s what we’re striving to do with the safety of our entire community and by staying true to our mission and values. We are supporting the health and wellness of our community as comprehensively as we can, and we are critically evaluating our practices and policies to ensure that we continue to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in all our operations.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.