Public, private universities pivot to stave off the challenges of a global pandemic.
In addition to being an academic medical center, the KU Med Center in Kansas City is home to research organizations like Sinochips Diagnostics, a private lab researching the virus that causes COVID-19. (University of Kansas photo)
Education is the pillar of any university’s mission statement, but as campus executives will tell you, it’s just one of three legs on a stool that defines their purpose. The two others are service and research.
Almost from its founding days, Kansas City and the surrounding region have been blessed to be bracketed by three major research universities. One could make a solid argument that at no time in the history of those institutions has their engagement in the research and service legs been more relevant and timely to residents of Missouri and Kansas.
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S. in the earliest days of 2020, and we witnessed the impact on the educational component as universities canceled live classes, turned to remote learning, shuttered dorms and limited access for visitors. On the service and research fronts, though, the levels of activity have been dizzying. Here’s a quick tour of some selected engagements:
University of Kansas
The closest of the three major universities is Lawrence-based KU, which also has a major satellite with the Edwards campus in Overland Park. Students, faculty and staff across KU’s operations have been called to duty in the fight against COVID-19 in multiple ways.
For one, KU researchers are developing quick-turnaround COVID-19 test, something seen as a key tool for policy-makers trying to assess the speed the viral spread. One KU team is repurposing “lab on a chip” technology, developed to give doctors simple tools to more easily and quickly diagnose conditions ranging from stroke to colon cancer. Only this time, they’re attempting to develop a quick-turnaround COVID-19 test that can be used at home.
“Eventually, our test will go into a home—like an early pregnancy test at home,” said Steven Soper, a KU Foundation Distinguished Professor in both the School of Engineering and Department of Chemistry. “Anyone could do it.”
Working with a team of half a dozen graduate students in bioengineering and chemistry, is focused on a small plastic chip—about 38×42 millimeters—that contains 1.5 million tiny pillars, just 10 microns wide and 50 microns tall. Each pillar contains a piece of ribonucleic acid that “recognizes” a protein found in the COVID-19 virus particle.
To the east, on the medical center campus in Wyandotte County, researchers are part of a clinical trial designed to speed the testing of COVID-19 outpatient treatments. The unique nationwide clinical trial will allow for the testing of multiple agents to fight COVID-19. Known as ACTIV-2 (Adapt Out COVID), this trial is part of the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines effort announced by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) this spring.
KU also has four investigators who have launched new research projects desig-ned to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Pilot grants of $50,000 each have gone to help determine how three of the novel coronavirus’s membrane proteins affect the development of the disease, which could assist with vaccine development; design of an efficient, customizable contact-tracing system to control spread of the virus; and investigating ways to ramp up the body’s immune system to fight the disease.
University of Missouri
Research teams in Columbia, primarily affiliated with the School of Medicine, are engaged in a number of studies, many of them focused on smaller patient populations with diverse risks. Among those efforts:
• A study on quality-of-life impacts for both caregivers and their wards on the autism spectrum during the pandemic.
• A team that has focused on flu and measles viruses is now attempting to find if enzymes that are key in control in those maladies can also disrupt replication of respiratory viruses like COVID-19.
• A separate group is exploring pseudoparticles from the spike glycoprotein of the virus that causes COVID-19 to determine whether synthetic peptides, small molecules and neutralizing antibodies can inhibit the virus at the point of entry.
• And another team is working with the state’s Department of Natural Resources to test wastewater systems for early detection of localized outbreaks in the general population.
All are part of MU’s mission, said Chancellor Mun Choi, to achieve a nationally competitive position in research, scholarship and academic programs in selected areas.
Kansas State University
K-State answered the prayers of investors in a small company called Tonix Pharmaceuticals in July, when it signed a new preclinical research and option agreement for the company to develop TNX-2300, a vaccine candidate to prevent COVID-19. When news of that broke, the company’s stock price doubled overnight, from 81 cents to $1.67 a share.
The university will advance preclinical development of a live replicating virus vaccine to protect against COVID-19 based on bovine parainfluenza virus. K-State has granted Tonix an option for an exclusive license for the clinical and commercial use of the university’s intellectual property.
In other initiatives, virologists in the College of Veterinary Medicine published a study in Science Translational Medicine’s August issue, showing a possible therapeutic treatment for COVID-19. The study showed how small molecule protease inhibitors offer a potent defense against human coronaviruses by disrupting viral replication.
Back to School
As for the educational mission, all three campuses have instituted rigorous protocols aimed at reducing the potential for transmitting the virus within their student populations. Students being students, though, off-campus gatherings at house parties and other venues contributed to spikes in COVID-19 cases in Columbia, Lawrence and Manhattan.
The coming spring semester will be missing an annual rite of passage, especially for seniors: There will be no spring break at KU. Students at K-State started the fall semester a week early, and both campuses will end their fall semesters at Thanksgiving—students will get a two-month break before returning to classes on Feb. 1 for the spring session.
At MU, officials considered making a similar switch, but eventually held fast on the late-August return date for students and the planned holiday and spring break schedules. The university did have to contend with a spike in cases, and even expelled two students for breaking rules meant to minimize the spread of the virus in the student population, and suspended three others.
And across almost every campus, best practices for containing the spread have seen a redesign of common areas to provide greater distancing between users, fewer seats in classrooms and more space in office, symptom-checking before admission to buildings, mandatory mask usage, tents to take advantage of more space outdoors, enhanced cleaning processes, new signage and sanitation stations, reduced limits on bus and shuttle ridership, and restrictions on delivery of campus mail.
Following the guidance of public-health officials since early in the outbreak, universities are emphasizing the need to observe physical distancing of at least six feet, urging frequent hand-washing with soap and water, use of hand sanitizers, covering up coughs and sneezes, increasing frequency and thoroughness in the cleaning of high-touch surfaces, and shaking hands.
Students are going through daily health checks, being urged to refrain from attending any of the live classes if a sick family member or roommate at home has COVID-19 or if they have been in close contact with another person who has it, are waiting on tests results for infection, or have recently traveled outside their state.
Among other campus sites in the Kansas City area, UMKC resumed in-person classes, but at 25 percent of the normal seating capacity. That was a marked improvement from the spring, when the campus took on an almost ghostly tenor after a university move to remote-learning plans.
Even the books from the library were being quarantined, for four days, without charges to students who couldn’t return them on time. In addition to classroom spacing, UMKC is also adding desk shields and HVAC improvements across campus, and at its School of Dentistry, it shortened waiting times to reduce patient loads, and added 30 aerosol suctioning units for use during hygiene work.
By September, Rockhurst University, across Troost Avenue, had returned to Level 3 of a four-stage plan to return to regular campus routines. But repeated violators of policies like mandatory mask usage could be reported on-line form or directly to campus security, and food from the university’s dining services was prepared in to-go containers, while employees were encouraged to eat in their offices. Seating in dining areas was primarily reserved for commuter students and only two guests were allowed per table in dining areas. Meal plans also were adjusted to reflect the new delivery method.
Park University, no stranger to distance learning with its robust programming that primarily serves military personnel around the world, made use of more tele-instruction this fall, and the university adopted a blended format of face-to-face and on-line coursework. Face-to-face class meetings were moved to Zoom formats and the scho-ol’s in-house Canvas system, pending
an announcement later this fall on instructional practices for the spring semester.Faculty, staff, students and visitors are all expected to wear face coverings on university property outside of their individual work area, dorm room, or personal vehicle, and the university provided disposable face masks in all of its facilities.
Avila University, like Park, adopted a policy to encourage students and employees to ask reluctant peers to don masks if needed, and set up separate reporting contacts for faculty and student non-compliance. It also restricted foot traffic to one-way in some locations, and posted signage to help keep people distanced.
Employees returned to on-campus work at William Jewell College in Liberty on Aug. 1, with meetings coming through Zoom whenever possible. Authorized approval in advance was required for staff travel, and anyone leaving the area was subject to a 14-day quarantine upon return. The same held for anyone who attends a mass gathering. The school also pushed its October fall break to November for an extended Thanksgiving break, and plans to conduct semester-ending finals virtually.