The Slatest

How Colleges Are Responding to Their Campus Coronavirus Outbreaks

Students wearing masks socially distance in a lecture hall
UNLV students attend class on Sept. 9 in Las Vegas. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

As students have returned to campuses to begin their fall semesters, colleges and universities are rapidly becoming coronavirus hot spots, with more than 61,000 new cases being reported on campuses across the country, according to data from the New York Times. University administrators attribute these surges to off-campus parties and other gatherings attended by students with little social distancing and mask-wearing. While the spikes have pushed some schools to switch to remote learning for the rest of the semester, others—such as the University of Alabama, which has reported nearly 2,000 cases since class started Aug. 19—are continuing with in-person classes. Others are continuing—or resuming—college athletics. And this week, the University of Georgia, which had made plans for more than 20,000 fans to attend football games, came under fire after it canceled in-person voting on campus, citing coronavirus concerns. (It reversed course on Thursday.)

To prepare for the semester, schools developed safety plans for those returning to campus, including requiring their students to get tested before move-in and moving some or all classes online. To enforce social distancing and mask-wearing, schools have been monitoring students’ social media accounts and suspending (or dismissing without a tuition refund, as Northeastern did earlier this month) those who violate these requirements. Although some campuses have set up quarantine dorms and testing centers, others, such as Georgia Southern University, only offer testing to those showing symptoms. And few schools that allowed students to return to campus seem to be abandoning their original plans and moving classes online and sending students home.

Here’s how some schools with outbreaks are responding to their COVID-19 spikes.

Auburn University

Auburn, a public university in Alabama, has one of the largest university outbreaks so far, with more than 500 students testing positive from Aug. 31 to Sept. 6. University officials attribute the spike to students packing downtown bars, where mask and social distancing orders are not being enforced, and are launching an investigation into those who have violated these orders. Currently, 4,800 students live in 32 residence halls on campus, where they were required to get tested within two weeks of arrival. Despite the spikes in cases, Dr. Fred Kam, the university’s medical director, doesn’t expect it to hinder fall classes, saying the numbers were “lower than he anticipated,” in a video released by the university.

University of Southern California

Although the private school made most classes virtual before the year started, 43 students living in off-campus housing tested positive on Aug. 24. Officials blamed the outbreak on an outdoor apartment party that more than 100 people attended. The university ordered more than 100 people living off campus to quarantine and suggested that those living off campus get tested weekly at free asymptomatic testing sites on campus.

University of Dayton

This private, Catholic institution in Ohio moved in most of its students back to campus in early August, but classes moved online quickly due to a virus spike. According to a letter written by university president Eric F. Spina, students were not following the school’s safety precautions by gathering in large groups, having parties, and not physically distancing or wearing masks. The university is using levels to determine when it will be safe to return to in-person instruction, going from Level 4 to Level 3 this past Friday, meaning that some classes will return to in-person next week. Joe Ostholthoff, a first-year student, says that the university should have prepared more safety precautions before the semester started. “Should’ve happened earlier because it takes time for these cases to show up,” Ostholthoff told a local news outlet. “So, if we administered stuff, even before week one before classes even started, there would be no issue with it, but we have the issue now.”

SUNY Oneonta

The SUNY campus did not require students to get tested before returning, and after a week of classes, more than 500 students reported positive. The university then canceled in-person instruction and sent all students home for the rest of the semester. Following reports by the Oneonta Police Department, the university had suspended five students and three student organizations for hosting large parties, which some say had been a major issue on campus. “People are roaming the halls, people are playing music, people are partying … just like they did before they got here,” David Treanor, a junior from Yorktown who tested positive for COVID-19, told a local news station.

Texas A&M

More than 11,000 students arrived at the state-school campus in College Station over an 11-day period in early August, with testing not required. After a notable spike in late August in which more than 300 students tested positive for the virus, university officials encouraged community members to report social gatherings of more than 10 people and placed two sororities on a chapterwide quarantine after hosting social events without university permission. “There were definitely lots and lots of young women here in the sorority houses that are behind us,” Chelsea Thorn, a College Station resident, told KBTX. “They were definitely congregating in large groups, taking photographs very close to each other without masks. A couple of them did have masks on but they would take it off pretty regularly.”

Adrian College

With a population of just under 2,000 students, this private, Methodist school located in southern Michigan was urged by local health officials to suspend in-person classes after coronavirus cases began to climb. However, president Jeffrey Docking said the school will continue holding face-to-face instruction for the rest of the semester and that students who have tested positive are being isolated. However, current students say this isn’t the case, adding that those who had tested positive were still living in their residential halls, picking up food in the dining hall, and using communal restrooms.