By Regina Stracqualursi

Earlier this year, thousands of schools across the country shifted to online learning in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. This fall, many that reopened have had to alternate between periods of remote and in-person instruction due to outbreaks. As COVID-19 cases surge across the country, an app developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute could help school officials evaluate their plans for managing the virus before bringing students back to campuses.

COVID Back-to-School, free and available to the public, was built by a team of undergraduate and graduate researchers in the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA) with support from the United Health Foundation. The app was developed under the direction of IDEA’s Associate Director Kristin Bennett and IDEA’s Director of Operations John Erickson, and is based on an algorithm developed by Malik Magdon-Ismail, a professor of computer science at Rensselaer.

The purpose of the app is to help administrators and decision-makers, at levels ranging from elementary to collegiate, as they create plans for managing COVID-19 infection rates in their schools. Users of the app can provide some basic information about a school, such as the location, number of students, average number of interactions in various settings, etc., and see how many students may become infected over time. They can also see how testing frequency, group size, duration of gatherings, and mask-wearing protocols could affect the overall infection rate. “COVID Back-to-School allows schools to try out various strategies before actually implementing them, to see what works and what doesn’t,” said Magdon-Ismail.

The robust machine learning algorithm behind COVID Back-to-School offers accurate predictions despite some of the challenges faced when forecasting COVID-19 infection rates in smaller populations, such as the lack of large quantities of data or current data.

The tool was utilized by Rensselaer leaders as they prepared to bring students back to campus this fall, during which they were able to keep the COVID-19 infection rate low. Now, leaders at Rensselaer are hoping the tool can help others reopen their institutions safely. “We encourage other institutions to learn from and use these tools, like COVID Back-to-School, in hopes that they have similar success in the spring,” said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. “I am confident that the work of our experts will benefit countless campus communities as we find our way through this difficult time.”