When Colorado Mesa University officials decided they had a moral imperative to make in-person learning available to a campus population heavy with low-income and first-generation college students, they knew they needed to be prepared for a multitude of possible scenarios during the fall semester.

One was the ability to make a quick pivot to online learning if COVID-19 transmission rates ballooned. They have — though not to the degree the rest of the community has experienced. But with 290 new positive cases reported for the testing period ending Friday, CMU officials made a prudent call that benefits not just students, but their families and our entire community.

Instead of keeping a classroom schedule through the Thanksgiving break, CMU switched to online learning a week early — a move designed to allow every student to get a negative test before heading home, which then frees up the university’s testing capacity to be used by the rest of the community.

It could be a difference-maker. Mesa County is in the midst of its worst surge in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. Case counts were consistently in the single digits through mid-October. But the recent two-week case totals for the county have exceeded 1,500 and the two-week positivity rate is inching toward 11%.

Meanwhile, Mesa County Public Health’s testing capacity is strained. On Thursday it conducted 820 tests at the Mesa County Fairgrounds — “about double what we thought we could ever do,” said MCPH Executive Director Jeff Kuhr.

CMU’s testing site, which will scale up significantly once students go online, will help alleviate the long wait times for testing at the fairgrounds, Kuhr said.

Any doubts about the wisdom of CMU’s decision to return to in-person learning should now be laid firmly to rest. The school built up a testing regimen and contact-tracing infrastructure that has become a model for the rest of the nation. It allowed the campus to operate with few restrictions for nearly the entirety of its intended classroom schedule. Now all the time and energy that went into building a safe campus is being repurposed for the benefit of the community — when it’s needed most.

CMU students were never outsized contributors to pandemic numbers like students in some other college towns. Testing is part of that, but so is a strong culture of personal responsibility. Students have bought into the idea that they play a direct role in containing spread by wearing masks and social distancing. That’s something the rest of the Grand Valley needs to embrace more rigorously if we are to get through this latest surge without more restrictions.

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