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Colgate University students – and president – lock down for 2 weeks to start semester

Colgate University's coronavirus precautions
Two-week quarantine, scheduled outdoor time among Colgate University coronavirus precautions 07:12

Universities are facing a difficult choice of whether they should open for in-person classes or stick with remote learning as fall semesters begin. A number of prominent colleges and universities have already welcomed students back for classes, only to reverse course because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Colgate University in New York State has managed to open its campus and keep it open so far, after some careful planning.

"You're not coming back to normal," said university president Brian Casey. "You're coming back to a new normal."

That's his message to the returning 2,500 students. To bring them back, the president of the two-century-old school has an unprecedented plan.

"So you enter, you have to come immediately to the right, where a machine will instantly take your temperature," Casey told CBS News' Errol Barnett as they entered a building. 

He also pointed out that in small lecture hall seats were blocked off, adding, "but more importantly you see a camera off to our right that is following the professor. So for those learning remotely, they're getting the whole classroom experience."

Casey decided against all-remote learning and instead structured a reopening plan with advice from medical and scientific experts. The key? A mandatory two-week, on-campus quarantine – as step one.

President Casey is currently living in a dorm room himself, neighboring students for 17 days.

"If I'm asking you to do this, I'll do it, too," Casey said. "So whatever food you're eating, I'm gonna eat. Whatever rules you have about when you're allowed outside, that's when I'll go outside." So I'm doing it with them.

"No special treatment?" Barnett asked. "Are we supposed to believe that from the college president?"

"The fact that I have a single with my own bathroom strikes people as a real, real plus," Casey said.

All learning is initially virtual, meals are delivered straight to student's dorms and time spent outside is scheduled.

Colgate's faculty and staff are also undergoing routine testing.

"All of our students will have been tested before they show up, upon arrival, and during the quarantine toward the end. So we will know at the end of those 14 days that any student coming out will have had three negative tests within a normal period in which the disease exhibits itself," Casey said.

Alex, a student, didn't have a chance to return home to Vietnam when COVID-19 closed the school in the spring. The international student has been living on campus ever since and supports the quarantine.

"What do you say to other students who are fearful in coming back to campus?" Barnett asked.

"I think-- the fear is totally valid," Alex said. "I myself am very nervous about everyone coming back."

"How risky do you feel it is for you to be on campus?" Barnett asked.

"I actually think it's less risky for me to be on campus rather than returning home," Alex said.

Mariana Lemon is willing to make sacrifices for the on-campus experience. The freshman from the Bronx moved in over the summer.

"I still want to have a freshman year and I'm still here," Lemon said. "And I'm like, honestly willing to just take classes online from my room, and only talk to my roommate. Maybe have, like, the social distance, like, lunches or dinners kind of deals, outside when it's still warm out. So I'm willing to, like, have, like, an alternate freshman year if that's what it takes, you know?"

The students we spoke with admit the lack of socializing will be difficult. Especially for a linebacker on the school's football team. AJ DeSantis said teambuilding is the point.

"When you're apart, you're not building that kinda connection that would have when you're here," Desantis said. "That's one of the most important things in football because it's not one guy on the field at a time. It's many guys on the field working together, special teams, offense, defense, everything together."

If there's one thing we've seen nationwide, from Georgia Tech to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and USC, it's that college students will still socialize in large groups, despite the risk, leading those campuses to either shut down or quarantine infected students. 

Casey has a plan for that, too.

"We're doing wastewater testing. The virus exhibits itself in wastewater often before you see it in your mucous or in-- or your blood," Casey said. "So we have put wastewater readers, on all of our residence halls, all of the houses on Broad Street where a lot of our students live. So if we detect any increase in the virus, which you'll see first in wastewater, we will immediately test everyone in that particular house."

Casey said the school purchased a hotel for a quarantine site and has invested millions into their full coronavirus response.

"Three rounds of testing, rapid testing machines, all the phys, all of our dining halls had to be completely retrofitted to have grab-and-go. Extra staff to do the testing," Casey said. "We're north of $4 million right now. So that's a lot of money just out-of-pocket."

Casey acknowledges the living situation he's asking students to go through isn't ideal. But in our new world, he says, it's essential.

"In our culture, we rarely talk about public good," Casey said. "We rarely talk about sacrificing individual needs for benefits that accrue to everybody. That's not part of our political rhetoric, it's not part of our culture anymore. So we wanna tell them this is gonna be hard. And that they need to learn to think about not just themselves, but other people. And I think we're an educational institution, why don't we make that something they're learning this year? Why don't we make that the lesson."

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