Life

How Colleges Are Keeping COVID Cases Low

The rules don’t always make sense to students. But they seem to be working.

A group of five people in face masks stand in a circle inside a student hall.
Drazen Zigic/iStock/Getty Images Plus

For a week and half in August, Rose felt like life had finally returned to pre–March 2020 status. She was back on campus at Cornell, where a string of sorority parties and frat mixers rang in the new semester. “Initially, there was not care in the world,” says Rose (who is going by her middle name here). “Everybody felt normal. People were excited to be back.”

But then Rose started feeling fatigued. Cornell hadn’t yet begun its surveillance testing program, which requires weekly tests, so Rose bought an at-home test. Her result came back positive, on Aug. 26, the day the campus began in-person instruction. She was the first in her friend group—but not the last.

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“It was sort of a tragic moment where we all realized it had gotten a foothold,” Rose says about learning she had COVID. “It went from completely nonexistent to being a little bit everywhere.” In late August, Cornell case numbers swelled. At one sorority house, 15 out of 18 girls tested positive. On Aug. 31, a daily record of 130 new positive cases were reported.

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Rose was sick with heavy congestion, a cough, and a searing headache for seven days. But all she could think about were the classes she was missing: For the past two-and-a-half semesters, schools around the nation had been conducted primarily online, with some hybrid classes. But this year, Cornell, like many institutions, did not have a remote learning option, meaning many students spent the fall attending in-person classes even as delta circulated.

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It seems to have gone fine. “The science continues to indicate that our approach to an in-person semester is safe and that risk of infection is minimal when we collectively follow public health guidance,” the Cornell administration wrote in one email to students at the kickoff of the semester. “The vast majority of our identified cases are asymptomatic or experiencing only mild symptoms,” another statement reads. After a cluster of positive cases at the beginning of the year, Cornell’s campus COVID alert level is now at a green level—meaning “cases are rare and transmission is controlled.” The text on the website explains that this level represents campus being at a “new normal.” Many colleges nationwide are reporting similarly low case numbers.

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With that, hallmarks of college life have returned: On many campuses, there are football games, frat parties, shared dorm rooms, and even singing performances. The tag-team effort of testing programs and vaccination mandates, as imposed in many colleges, has contained COVID infections at colleges and kept positivity rates down. But college life can’t quite return to normal. Institutional rules and customs have shifted on campuses across the nation in varying—and at times contradictory—ways.

As in the rest of America, rules on where masks are and aren’t required seem to be based more on logistics and comfort than biology. At Yale, where I am a student, masks are imposed in the classroom—including small 12-person seminars—but large dining halls remain open, allowing hundreds of students to eat meals, without a mask of course, crammed next to one another at large communal tables. This is the case at many colleges. Other times, masking rules feel randomly applied—Yale student-athletes don’t have to wear masks when training or playing games, even at indoor stadiums, but singing and dramatic groups on campus must wear masks when practicing and performing.

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The “new normal” on campus involves an informal surveillance of coughs. At Washington University in St. Louis, a professor kicked out a student sitting in the front row of his 200-person chemistry lecture for having a coughing fit in class, according to Benjamin Malin, a freshman who was sitting further back and watched the incident (and who is, full disclosure, my cousin). “I thought it was a joke at first. And then the professor was like, ‘No I’m serious. If you’re coughing, you shouldn’t be here—get tested,’ ” Malin recalls. Skipping class because of a coughing fit isn’t the end of the world; most lectures are recorded at Washington University, so if students aren’t feeling well, they can still watch the class. But, Benjamin says, he prefers to go in person since the recording cameras are often placed far away from the lectern, so it’s hard to see what the professor is writing on the board.

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But not everywhere makes it easy to skip class if you’re sick. At Cornell, remote access to classes is rarely an option—and most classes aren’t even quipped with the sound technology to record. Some students feel they have to show up to class, even if they’re feeling sick, in order to keep up with their academics. “I was sitting next to this girl in class one day and she was, like, coughing a bunch. And I’m like, this poor girl probably does not want to miss her classes. But at the same, you know, the school is incentivizing you to go to school,” Zoë Fleishaker, a senior at Cornell, says.

For colleges that have their home base in cities, students and faculty are hyperaware of how COVID landscapes shift just beyond university gates and affect the campus population as a result.

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The St. Louis bar scene is a hub for Washington University students. Malin says that this feels especially true this fall, since dorm room parties on campus are limited to 15 people due to COVID restrictions. Students seeking bigger parties are compelled to go out in St. Louis—even though that puts them at a higher risk of contracting COVID. In St. Louis, as of this writing, 57.14 percent of the population has gotten both shots. That’s significantly lower than the school’s vaccination rate of 98 percent. The school’s strict party rules actually proved counterintuitive since they forced drunk college students into St. Louis—making them, in his opinion, “exposed to higher chances of getting COIVD,” he says.

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At Southern Methodist University, the school’s COVID rules are more relaxed than those for the campus’s home city of Dallas. In October, the school lifted its mask mandate, making face coverings optional in most indoor spaces. The COVID caseload at SMU is low, but the COVID caution level in Dallas County—where many professors live and many students engage—is high. Aurélie Thiele, a professor in the engineering school at SMU, says that the faculty didn’t want the school to lift the mask mandate while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommended masking in the city. The SMU Faculty Senate passed a resolution asking for the mask requirement to remain until the Dallas rate of COVID transmission lowered, Thiele said, but the school did not follow this request. Now, masks can be imposed in classrooms, such as Theile’s, at the discretion of the faculty members.

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The new normal of college can feel absurd and paradoxical at times. In many instances, the rules could make more sense. But, as is evident by low case numbers, the reopening of colleges this fall worked. Washington University, which has more than 7,600 students, has only recorded 208 positive cases since Aug. 30. SMU and Cornell have 12 and 17 active positive cases, respectively, according to data collected through the end of Thanksgiving week. Even given the uneven rules, students are grateful that their college years are no longer taking place online. “The commitment to all in person was definitely commendable,” Annette Gleiberman, a senior at Cornell, said. “Because—trust me—I am so tired of being in my bedroom and staring at a computer screen.”

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