RPI launches ‘COVID Back to School’ response aid app

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TROY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — The more you know, the better you plan. The better you plan, the more likely you keep COVID-19 at bay. That’s the idea behind an all-new app Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute released on Thursday: “COVID Back to School.”

“It allows one to make predictions based on data inputs about mask-wearing, about if there is an infection, how likely is it to spread under certain conditions,” explains RPI President Shirley Jackson.

Jackson says the app uses a complex algorithm, developed by RPI computer science professor Malik Magdon-Ismail, to help school districts predict if their COVID response plans will hold up in the worst-case scenarios.

“It can show you the effects of if there’s so many infections coming in, if 50% of the people wear masks, versus 70%, versus 30%, what might happen,” she describes in a Zoom interview with NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton. “It can give you some information about vectoring across a community—or in our case a campus—if there’s certain pinch points, those types of things.”

NEWS10 decided to take the “COVID Back to School” app for a test run. We used hypothetical data entries for an Albany-area college campus, including how many on-campus students, their number of interactions during classes, meals, and in residences, and also factoring in the current infection rate in the county. The app provided a graph to show the percentage of students infected over time, with predictions through the Spring semester.

The app then gave sliding bar options to show how predictions might change if policies reduce class sizes, the number of campus dining interactions per student, student COVID testing intervals, the budget for how many students to test, etc. The app also gave several more graphs to predict different scenarios. For instance: How much a campus population might be affected by a party, how testing frequency might impact infections, and new cases over a 14 day period.

Jackson says RPI already had an extensive reopening plan that included what she calls a “three-legged stool” for testing.

“The app helped to reinforce what we had always planned to do, and that’s twice-weekly testing for the students. They get a schedule of when they need to be tested, and on-campus access is removed if they miss that. We do our own tests. We do PCR-based pool testing, point-of-care antigen tests, and also PCR-based confirmatory and diagnostic tests through the Broad Institute [of MIT and Harvard],” she says.

RPI also implemented limited campus access to the public, de-densifying residential halls, setting up quarantine and isolation spaces, and monitoring wireless internet access points for signs of over gathering.

“And then on top of all these things, we also have triggers for shutdown. If certain things occur, how would we go into a quarantine in place for two weeks, and then if we exceed our isolation capacity, we would shut down. We have not triggered that, because of all the other things that we’ve done,” Jackson adds.

She says RPI used the “COVID Back to School” app themselves to predict how well these practices would work throughout the semester. Jackson says the college’s infection rate below 0.5% seems proof it’s working well.

“It really takes comprehensive planning and a comprehensive integrated plan, and so this app has been very very important, but it alone will not keep your infection rates down,” she warns.

She says she knows not every college, high school, middle school, or elementary school has the same resources of RPI. What she hopes the app will do is help communities plan their Spring semester, reflect on models that did or didn’t work, and make whatever changes they can to avoid all remote.

“We are a part of this community, and we want to, not just take care of ourselves, but to be a good neighbor,” Jackson says.

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