As summer draws to a close, universities across the country are beginning to reopen. Many universities, such as the campuses of the University of California system (which has yet to begin its school year) have announced that their plans for the fall are primarily remote.
Other institutions, though, have opened their campuses to students for the fall. And now, weeks into the re-openings of many such schools, the decision has been accompanied by a wave of COVID-19 cases.
Utah State University has put nearly 300 students in quarantine after finding traces of the COVID-19 virus in the wastewater of four different dorms. The school’s first day of classes was this past Monday, August 31.
Another school, the University of South Dakota, has reported over 240 active cases. They currently have about 590 people in isolation over concerns about the virus.
This has become a common theme among re-opened universities across the country. There are more examples than this list can cover. The University of Kentucky, for instance, has reported 760 positive cases. Back on August 12, Northeast Mississippi Community College reported that 300 of their 3,034-person student body (or 9.9% of their students) were in quarantine.
One very notable example is the University of Alabama, which has seen a startlingly large rise in the number of positive cases on their campus. According to the school itself, over 1,200 students and 166 staff members have tested positive. Classes began two weeks ago, on August 19. By August 24, five days after opening, the school had 562 students that had tested positive. The next two days after that saw 481 more cases.
However, there have been some instances of schools re-opening with success. Duke University has yet to see a major spike in cases. They’ve reported approximately 46 cases and are currently sitting at a positivity rate of .3%. Some sources attribute this to the school’s extremely robust testing: Duke tested each and every student when they returned to campus. And though they have re-opened, Duke has limited campus living to first and second years and are only allowing only one student per room. Staff at the school have also accredited their low numbers to the fact that Duke does not have large, unsupervised sorority and fraternity houses.
The schools that have faced higher numbers of positive tests, though, are scrambling to assign responsibility and figure out a solution.
Many have been quick to backtrack on their initial aspirations of re-opening for the fall. The University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill walked back their re-opening plans after hundreds of positive cases arose on campus, switching out their hybrid format for an entirely remote system.
Other schools that initially hoped to re-open changed their plans ahead of time in light of this new data. Michigan State University released a statement asking students to remain home, expressing concerns over their ability to mitigate transmission of the virus should students return to campus.
The high number of cases across the country has also caused many of these universities to release statements reprimanding their student bodies. University of Alabama President Stuart Bell expressed being “deeply disappointed” that not all students had been complying with the guidelines laid by the school, and warned that “those who blatantly disregard the rules will not be given the option of jeopardizing the semester for everyone else.”
There is no doubt that a refusal to follow social distancing guidelines, especially among young university students living in densely-populated communities, plays a large role in the spread of the COVID-19 virus on college campuses.
However, an article published by the Atlantic and written by Julia Marcus and Jessica Gold, predicted this reaction from schools. Published on July 21, long before most schools reopened, the article is called “Colleges Are Getting Ready to Blame Their Students.” In it, the authors do not argue against the concerns stated above. But towards its end, the piece does argue for a different distribution of blame.
“College students will need to adapt their behaviors for universities to function in the fall,” the article agrees. “But students are not solely—or even primarily—responsible for keeping campuses safe.”