CC Summer Session professor: ‘I tested positive for the virus’

Plus, how a sociology theory could be used in fall higher-ed plans

Good morning, and happy Thursday! On this pre-pandemic date last year, Colorado College geology professor Eric Leonard, who has since retired, was leading a 15-student trip through Scotland. Currently, all overseas trips are canceled. 

Today, we introduce you to a CC professor who taught Block A while infected with COVID-19, and we also look at how a “network theory” can be useful for bringing students back to campus. 

🚨ACTION: We’re still seeking opinions from CC staff for a survey about work environments and CC’s response to the pandemic. Plenty of responses have already come in but if you’re a staff member at CC, you can still take the survey here. Be on the lookout for a future newsletter with our findings. If you know a CC staff member, please forward them this email. 

➡️ICYMI: Yesterday, we spoke with outgoing president Jill Tiefenthaler about what it’s like to leave the college during a pandemic and what she’s looking forward to in her new role as head of the National Geographic Society. We also recapped some updates from CC’s ITS staff, including expanded access to the college’s Zoom license.

A professor’s self-isolation tent in Colorado Springs, June 2020. (Courtesy Dan Miska)

‘We would have never known if we weren’t tested’: Teaching through COVID-19

In one of the final Zoom sessions for Dan Miska’s Block A Introduction to Human Anatomy class this summer, the Colorado College professor let some students in on something of a secret: For much of the class he’d been self-isolated in his basement, infected with COVID-19. 

“I tested positive for the virus,” he told The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project in a pair of interviews this week, adding that he remained completely asymptomatic. He recently emerged from his basement, and is now teaching Block B. 

The 45-year-old self-described germaphobe who teaches in the human biology and kinesiology department got swabbed for the virus nearly a month ago. One evening at dinner, his 16-year-old daughter had said she wasn’t feeling well and mentioned she couldn’t taste her chicken caesar salad. A known symptom of the novel coronavirus is losing a sense of taste or smell. When she got tested, the results came back in about 24 hours: positive. That meant the whole family had to get a swab.

“I was actually out of town with some friends at the time,” Miska said. “And then as soon as they found out — I didn’t know any of this until they found out the positive test result — obviously I had to tell everyone I was with, and then I had to come home.”

Positive results for COVID-19 also came back for Miska’s 18-year-old daughter who recently graduated high school and is living at home. Miska’s wife and 10-year-old daughter, however, never tested positive after undergoing multiple tests. None of the three who tested positive ever came down with serious symptoms. 

For the Miskas, the virus infecting three-fifths of their household meant self-isolation and contact tracing. County public health officials quizzed them about their recent close contacts and behavior. “Interestingly, my 10-year-old’s friend who she had been playing with since the start of the whole thing … tested positive,” Miska said. “Her friend’s parents tested negative twice.” And even though Miska’s 18-year-old daughter tested positive, her boyfriend never did. 

The professor spent 10 days in the basement of his Northwest Colorado Springs home where he set up a tent, binged on YouTube coffee videos, and tried to avoid watching or reading news about a rising death toll. He fell asleep worrying whether the next morning would be the one he’d wake up sick. That morning never came. He continued his distance-learning Block A instruction without even telling extended family members he’d caught the virus. There’s a stigma that comes with it, he said, imagining the questions. Had he or a family member been irresponsible? “I never even told the entire class,” he said. (We hope they read this newsletter.) 

These days, things are back to normal in the Miska house, and the experience left him more confused than anything about a global pandemic whose source found its way into his bloodstream but never made him feel any physically different. He wonders how many others might have caught COVID-19 and never known. He thinks about families that don’t have access to the resources his does, and how the virus has disproportionately affected those who don’t look like him

Last week, President Donald Trump told an indoor crowd of thousands of maskless supporters in Oklahoma that he’d asked his “people” to “slow the testing down, please” because it’s a “double-edged sword” and “when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases.” 

For his part, Miska has a better appreciation for the millions of noses like his getting swabbed— and for how his own experience contributed to the national caseload.  

“I think there’s a lot of people out there that are like our house,” he said. “And we would have never known if we weren’t tested.”

Small Worlds Within a Small World: Sociology professor Kathy Giuffre explains social network theory and its relevance to COVID-19

On Monday, The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project spoke with Colorado College sociology professor Kathy Giuffre about network theory, and how colleges planning to reopen in the fall could use it to prevent COVID-19 spread.

NOTE: These statements represent her own opinions and not necessarily those of Colorado College.

🕸 The network theory, and how it’s useful for COVID-19

Network theory is an area of sociology that maps ties between different people in a social network and uses the results to solve problems and better understand human behavior. Imagine you wrote down the name of every person you know and regularly interact with, then drew arrows of varying thicknesses to each person, depending on how well you know them. That resulting spider web of names and arrows is a rudimentary diagram of your social network.

“One of the ways in which network analysis has been extremely useful throughout its history, which is only a few decades long, is in looking at spread of disease,” Giuffre says. “Because diseases spread quite often through social networks.”

As higher-ed institutions make decisions on how to approach the coming fall semester, some researchers have turned to network theory as a way to understand how COVID-19 could rage through a college campus and understand how to minimize the potential spread.

👥 How social networks look at a small liberal arts college like CC

Colorado College, like many other liberal arts colleges, is a small, dense community, where it can appear as if everybody knows everybody. It’s why some CC students joke they can never walk across campus without running into several people they know, or why most CC students recognize at least one person on the first day of a class.

“Students ... have multiple overlapping ties with each other: they live together; and they’re friends; and they’re in extracurricular activities together; they’re on sports teams together; and they’re majors in the same department. And one of the things that CC really likes to do is create community,” Giuffre says. “Anytime you have something lovely like building community, the dark side of that in the pandemic is spreading infection or the possibility of spreading infection.”

🌎 How could colleges potentially apply network theory to COVID-19 semester plans? 

Giuffre says it would probably have to start with a summer survey that listed the name of every member of the college community, and asked students, faculty, and staff to put a checkmark next to the name of every person they had contact with in the past year. From there, a network theorist like Giuffre could map and label the “small worlds” within CC that already exist. For first-year students, Giuffre says preliminary groups could be assigned based on a similar process to how roommates are assigned, taking into account their interests in things such as majors and extracurriculars.

“We could map those and say, ‘Okay, you are in the orange bubble ... made up of people you already know, people who are already your friends, people who you’re already in classes with,” Giuffre says. “Then, if something happens and someone tests positive [for COVID] in orange block, we say, ‘Okay orange block, you're locked down,’ and it means the whole school doesn’t have to lock down simultaneously.”

Giuffre says people still meet each other in “weird, idiosyncratic ways,” so any plan would have to be followed up with rigorous contact-tracing and testing. But, dividing up the school in such a manner would theoretically allow a campus to respond to a positive COVID-19 case without needing to shut down the whole school. Everything from when people are in class to when people can get their grab-and-go order from campus diners could be determined based on those groupings.

One of the obstacles to that plan, however, is a nationwide debate about whether or not college students can be trusted to follow the necessary rules and guidelines.

“Part of the joy of the Colorado College block system is that we do work hard, play hard,” Giuffre says. “The scary part about playing hard in a pandemic means playing hard with germs. Right, with a virus that can kill us.”

👰🏻 How faculty members are working through CC leadership transitions

Giuffre is a member of the six-person Academic Advisory Council which was announced on June 15 to advise acting co-presidents Mike Edmonds and Robert Moore. The Council met for the first time on Monday, and Giuffre says it’s comforting to have Edmonds and Moore leading the college since they have both been at CC for several years and know the college well. 

The presidential search is ongoing. While the selection process includes formal interviews, it also often includes time for candidates to come to campus and meet with various people and groups. Some of that is hard to replicate over Zoom, but Giuffre says flexibility will be essential during this process. 

“In a sense, we’re getting married to this person — and it’s a person we haven’t been dating,” Giuffre says.

About the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project

The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project is a student-faculty collaboration by Colorado College student journalists Miriam Brown and Arielle Gordon, Visiting Assistant Professor of Journalism Corey Hutchins, Assistant Professor of English Najnin Islam, and Journalism Institute Director Steven Hayward. Work by Phoebe Lostroh, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at CC and National Science Foundation Program Director in Genetic Mechanisms, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, will appear from time to time, as will infographics by Colorado College students Rana Abdu, Aleesa Chua, Sara Dixon, Jia Mei, and Lindsey Smith.

The project seeks to provide frequent updates about CC and other higher education institutions during the pandemic by providing original reporting, analysis, interviews with campus leaders, and context about what state and national headlines mean for the CC community. 

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