College students prepare to head back home a week into classes as coronavirus cases on campus climb

  • Universities reopening across the country have struggled to contain the climbing number of Covid-19 infections, spoiling carefully designed plans to safely bring students back to the classroom. 
  • School officials have urged students to maintain social distancing practices as health officials trace clusters of cases to off-campus gatherings. 
  • Infectious disease experts say the situation isn't surprising. 

It was a beautiful Monday on Polk Place Quad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as Olivia Amos ate dinner with her suite mates, enjoying the newfound freedom college life provides students as they return in the fall. 

Then the group received a collective buzz from their phones.

In that Aug. 17 email, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told students the coronavirus was tearing through campus and that the escalating cases created an "untenable situation." From that point on, all undergraduate instruction would move online and Amos and her friends needed to leave their on-campus housing as soon as possible.

"I think we were kind of in shock," said Amos, a 19-year-old sophomore studying communications. "We all were just kind of like, 'What is happening?'" 

Universities reopening across the country have struggled to contain the climbing number of Covid-19 infections, spoiling carefully designed plans to safely bring students back to the classroom. School officials have urged students to maintain social distancing practices as health officials trace clusters of cases to off-campus gatherings. Infectious disease experts say the situation isn't surprising. 

The troubled reopenings have pushed other universities to cancel their plans for in-person classes before students arrive. 

'A formidable foe'

UNC canceled in-person classes a week ago after more than 135 students tested positive for Covid-19 and 349 were in quarantine. When the announcement was made, there were only four rooms left for students who needed to quarantine, according to the university's data dashboard. Roughly 470 new cases have been confirmed just in the last week.

The offenders: off-campus gatherings, according to University of North Carolina System President Peter Hans.

The University of Notre Dame said it would halt in-person classes for two weeks on Aug. 18 when there were 255 total cases on campus. There are now at least 448 Covid-19 cases on campus, according to university data through Sunday. School officials have pointed to off-campus parties as the culprit. 

"The virus is a formidable foe," Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, said during the announcement. "For the past week it has been winning." 

Officials at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Syracuse University and Penn State University have issued similar warnings to students who have gathered on and off campus. The University of Connecticut kicked some residents out of their dorms after they hosted an unapproved gathering, saying they didn't adhere to social distancing guidelines. 

"It only takes a few to ruin it for the many, as we have seen at other universities across the country," Penn State President Eric Barron cautioned Thursday. 

Other institutions, such as Michigan State University and Ithaca College in New York, saw what was happening at colleges across the U.S. last week and canceled their plans to return students to campus this fall. 

'We're shocked'

Kyle Garcia, a 17-year-old freshman at Notre Dame and an aspiring aerospace engineering major, may face the same dilemma as Amos in the coming days. 

Garcia missed out on a traditional high school graduation in San Diego earlier this year and had to cancel his plans leading a summer Bible school because of the outbreak. Now it's threatening to upend his first semester as a college student as Notre Dame weighs whether to send students home only two weeks after they moved in.

"The general consensus is that we're shocked. This was not expected at all; this was not foreseen," said Garcia, speaking from the university's campus where students are on strict lockdown after a jump in Covid-19 cases last week.

Garcia, who flew to the university in South Bend, Indiana, and made frequent visits to nearby stores for dorm supplies, is now crafting his possible return home. If the coronavirus is widespread, Garcia said he's concerned about the threat students would pose if told to go home. 

"I think people are very surprised about how quickly this manifested," he said. "There has really been one weekend of parties and we're at 300 cases." 

Amos said she's weighing whether to find an off-campus apartment as she and her friends begin the process of moving out at UNC. One of them has hurriedly arranged move-out plans with her parents in Maryland, while another is concerned about returning home with her parents who are older. 

"I knew that there was a big possibility for us to move out sometime this semester, so I tried to pack as light as possible," she said. "I just didn't anticipate moving out this early." 

No surprise

Unfortunately, infectious disease experts say the situation isn't surprising.

"Part of the college experience is the social experience. I mean, it's not just about the the education," said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine who specializes in infectious diseases.

Del Rio said the nation has failed to effectively suppress Covid-19. Even though universities have made testing, contact tracing, social distancing and uniform mask wearing central to their reopening plans, the virus is still ravaging through local communities where many students live off-campus. 

"There simply is too much virus out there in the community," del Rio said. "If we had done a better job controlling the epidemic, I think we would be in a very different position." 

Even in states such as New York, which has been able to effectively control Covid-19 transmission for months, school officials face uncertainties with reopening universities, said Ravina Kullar, an adjunct faculty member at the University of California Los Angeles and a member of the Infectious Disease Society of America.

That's because many students travel from different states with worse outbreaks, and universities create "a breeding ground for a Covid disaster to happen," she said.

'Everything can shift'

"I think it's one thing to say that that city or the state is well prepared, but then everything can shift when the colleges open," Kullar said. 

Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the former assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration, criticized the lack of national uniformity on Covid-19 testing.

Koh mentioned a recent study conducted by Yale University and published in JAMA that found that colleges would need to test students every other day to safely reopen, though the study says it excluded the effects of contact tracing and testing on faculty. 

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests universities test people with Covid-19 symptoms or asymptomatic people who came in contact with a person diagnosed with Covid-19. But as the nation ventures deeper into the year, the flu season poses an additional threat to universities since clinicians and students will have a difficult time differentiating between the symptoms, Koh said. 

"We have a fast-moving, unprecedented pandemic, very little data and no national guidelines," he said. "So every university and college has to tackle this by themselves and come up with what they think is the best strategy." 

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