Hundreds of colleges across the U.S. are forging ahead with open campuses despite various coronavirus outbreaks early in the semester.
“I think it’s fair to have expected a lot of cases on campus,” Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, told Yahoo Finance. “The question is whether colleges can bring them under control through testing, tracing, and quarantining.”
The next two weeks will be critical in determining whether colleges’ strategies are truly paying off for the more than 600 schools that are conducting classes in person this fall, according to Kelchen.
The situation on the ground reveals an apparent struggle to contain the highly infectious coronavirus as cases pop up in college towns across the country. A dashboard created by Benjy Renton, a senior at Middlebury College, tracks the levels of outbreaks at around 50 schools and shows over two dozen schools at “red alert” — meaning a major outbreak of more than 500 cases — going into Labor Day weekend.
‘If the University of Illinois can’t make things work with their gold-standard testing, we’re all in deep trouble’
The decision whether to close campuses after they re-opened is a dicey one: Sending college students home is “the worst thing you could do,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said on NBC’s “TODAY” show. “When you send them home, particularly when you’re dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection.”
Kelchen highlighted the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s comprehensive testing program, which requires faculty, staff, and students on campus to test for COVID-19 twice a week and receive negative results “at least every four days.”
Even then, there are signs of trouble: Last week, the school announced that about a thousand students tested positive since August 16, pushing the school to limit in-person activities for the next two weeks.
“If the University of Illinois can’t make things work with their gold-standard testing, we’re all in deep trouble,” Kelchen said.
Greek life under fire for gatherings
Some universities have targeted fraternities and sororities, suspending those that flout campus rules by organizing gatherings or parties, to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Two University of Illinois students and an entire fraternity were suspended for hosting parties and breaking the college’s safety rules. At Indiana University-Bloomington, 30 Greek houses — roughly 2,600 students — were quarantined.
Sam Smith, a 21-year-old Ball State University student, told Yahoo Finance that fraternities living nearby have “begun to get on my last nerves” as frat members continue to frequent popular bars — even though the school has a COVID-19 positivity rate of more than 50%. (Of the 532 Ball State students tested for COVID-19 between August 17 to September 6, 293 tested positive.)
Wynn Smiley, chief executive officer of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, told Yahoo Finance that even if he encourages chapters on campus across the country to cancel all parties, “they can promptly ignore it.”
“This is that age group… it’s having nothing to do with the Greeks — college students that have not really been together since March are wanting to get together,” Smiley added. “So we can say, ‘no parties’ and they can say, ‘well, okay, but we’re going to anyway.”
Some students in Greek Life recognized the gravity of the matter. At Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey, 21-old- Delta Sigma Iota member George told Yahoo Finance that the school told them strictly “no parties or social events… under any circumstance.”
The school is fully online during the fall and expects all students to avoid in-person activities. In an email shared with Yahoo Finance, the school made it very clear: “May we reschedule our formal if we hold it outside? NO,” “Our chapter is small – may we have in-person meetings? NO,” and so on.
‘I didn’t realize I would get sick so quickly’
A New York Times survey of American colleges and universities found more than 51,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 60 deaths so far amid the pandemic.
Notre Dame sophomore Holly Larson had been on campus for “maybe 12 days” before she caught the virus.
The 19-year-old business school student recalled that after she felt the usual symptoms — dry cough, chills, fever, loss of appetite — she got a rapid test and was taken in a golf cart to alternative housing.
“I had it in the back of my head, especially with Notre Dame being one of the first schools to go back, and wasn’t sure what to prepare myself for,” the 19-year-old business school student said. “I bought some cough medicine, some NyQuil… just in case I did get sick. But I didn’t realize I would get sick so quickly.”
Notre Dame paused classes after an initial coronavirus outbreak in mid-August and began gradually resumed classes starting September 2.
Larson said that her peers “aren’t too nervous about getting sick… because young people that have gotten sick.. they just quarantine and they’re better, they have the antibodies.” That said, Larson added, “I would just remind them that there’s a lot on the line… there are people who really need to be on campus, and who really cannot go home… and we’ve got to make this work for those people who need to be here.”
New York University freshman Charles Hsu, who spent two weeks in quarantine after moving in, said that the pandemic may have dampened the college experience but was still worth it.
“I’m a big face-to-face person, so the lack of human interaction is getting to me a little bit,” the Tisch School of the Arts student told Yahoo Finance. “The saddest part is seeing people on the street through my window — they seem like they’re having fun.”
Both Larson and Hsu posted TikTok videos of their experience in quarantine, sharing the meals they received and parts of their daily routines.
“I still don’t know what was up with that watermelon chicken salad though,” Hsu said, adding: “I have faith in the program that they are going to figure it out.”
Aarthi Swaminathan is a reporter for Yahoo Finance covering education. If you have a story idea, or would like to share how your college or school is preparing to reopen, reach out to her at [email protected]