Schools nationwide are continuing to open amid the pandemic, despite the U.S. government’s lack of response handling the novel coronavirus. While many students and professors have been urging schools to go remote for the fall, some have opened anyway only to close days later. Others have opted for complete online or remote learning for the remainder of the year due to COVID-19 concerns.
Reports of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus have been reported in at least 36 states across the country. As students return to dormitories and in-person classes a rise in cases is no surprise, especially with a lack of testing and virus plans in place. At the University of Alabama alone more than 1,000 students tested positive for coronavirus since classes resumed in August, Daily Kos reported. Other schools have followed a similar pattern with a high number of COVID-19 cases being reported within a week or two of students arriving back on campus.
With a lack of a national plan to address the virus, schools are left to create their own rules. Many schools have created guidelines including the mandatory use of masks and social distancing, with suspensions as a result of breaking these rules. But students aren’t the only ones to blame; even if students follow these rules on campus there is no guarantee that they will not get infected elsewhere.
Some universities have been conducting entry testing, but this does not guarantee that the virus will not spread on campus. Outside of social events—commuting, off-campus living, and even essential trips like to the grocery store can contribute to a spread. “Over a third of US colleges and universities fully reopened in August. It was risky [… with] no federal covid-19 control plan or coordinated vision for safely reopening universities. Today, the national reopening experiment already looks to have been a disaster,” the BMJ noted. The journal added that most schools opened at a time where the U.S. saw an average of about 55,000 cases a day.
Without frequent testing, containing community transmission is not possible. Outbreaks have occurred in a number of large universities including the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with at least 130 cases within a week, the University of Notre Dame with more than 140, more than 200 at Auburn University, 111 at the University of Iowa and many more. Should they choose to remain open, universities have the responsibility to publish and update the number of tests, cases, and deaths associated with COVID-19 at their school.
“The decision to pivot in large part was the disease. It’s a horrible pandemic that we face. We couldn’t stand by any longer,” Ron Mitchelson said in an announcement, East Carolina University interim chancellor. The university’s decision to switch to remote-only learning followed 263 reported positive cases in one week. Prior to the announcement, Mitchelson also blamed students for being irresponsible and parties for the COVID-19 outbreak. “Last Wednesday we tested 165 students with 5 positive results (about 3%). The low number of positives gave me hope that everyone was doing their part,” Mitchelson said. “But then, the weekend comes and we see a small but visible fraction of our total student body scare us and the community with parties that are too large, too dense, unmasked, and irresponsible.”
While students living off-campus and in sorority and fraternity houses have been blamed for outbreaks by schools and their associated administrations, they aren’t the only ones experiencing transmission. Students in both dormitories and off-campus housing have tested positive for the virus, including at least 43 students at the University of Southern California resulting in more than 100 people requiring to quarantine.
With students from all over the world returning to campus, opening schools and dormitories not only put students at risk but those who work with them including faculty and other staff. According to BMJ, more than 40% of service and maintenance staff, including cafeteria workers and housekeeping staff, are people of color—a group that has been disproportionately affected by the virus.
As my colleague Marissa noted, as cases continue to be reported on campuses, schools are now adapting online models that will affect not only campus life but sports and other recreations, in addition to enhancing possible technological barriers to education. Colleges are not alone in this decision, high schools and grade schools are also opting for online learning amid the pandemic as teenagers and children grow increasingly at risk. Online learning seems to be the only safe option for students in the U.S. as the Trump administration continues to downplay the severity of this virus and fails to address it. Since March, colleges nationwide have reported more than 26,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in at least 750 schools, The New York Times reported.