Colleges grapple with coronavirus as students return

Published 6:49 pm Tuesday, August 18, 2020

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C.  — Notre Dame University became the latest college to move classes online due to the coronavirus, after nearly 150 students tested positive.

“It is very serious, and we must take serious actions,” university president the Rev. John Jenkins said in an address to students and staff Tuesday.

Tuesday’s action follows the decision by officials of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to switch to remote learning starting Wednesday, as the virus makes its mark on colleges — and college towns — across the United States. Some universities are reconsidering plans to hold in-person classes or implementing new testing regimes. Others are threatening crackdowns on students who get too close with others, in violation of social distancing rules.

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The University of Oklahoma is requiring its sororities to recruit new members virtually after learning of students attending large social events without taking precautions against the virus.

Notre Dame canceled in-person undergraduate classes for two weeks. Jenkins said he decided against sending students home after consulting with health care experts. Instead, the university is imposing restrictions on student activity, including limiting access to dormitories to residents and barring students from major gathering places on campus.

UNC-Chapel Hill freshman Mackenzie Holland spent two weeks in her dorm before she found herself moving back out again on Tuesday, after the university canceled in-person classes for undergraduates when clusters of coronavirus infection surfaced among students.

Holland said she sobbed for an hour after learning the news.

“I kind of expected it, but I’m just kind of disappointed in my classmates and the people that are out partying and stuff because now I can’t finish my college experience,” Holland said. “I know that we’ll be back one day, but it’s just sad right now.”

In the last few days alone, college students in places including North Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Vermont, Kansas, Colorado and the Air Force Academy have tested positive, creating a ripple effect that has put hundreds of other students into quarantine or isolation.

The U.S. leads the world in the number of coronavirus cases, with 5.4 million cases reported as of Tuesday, and more than 170,000 confirmed dead, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

In Chapel Hill, the university on Monday reported a spike in the proportion of its COVID tests coming back positive, prompting the university to move all classes online starting Wednesday.

“We had anticipated and planned for COVID cases on our campus this fall,” UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told faculty members in a Zoom call Monday. “However, seeing the COVID-19 positivity rate rise from 2.8% to 13.6% at Campus Health over the past week is very concerning.”

On Tuesday, a smattering of UNC-Chapel Hill students packed up their belongings and headed back home with their families. Oyeronke Popoola, a 17-year-old freshman living near two COVID-19 clusters, was taking a mix of online and in-person classes. She did not anticipate having to move back to Raleigh with her family just eight days after classes started.

“I was surprised because I thought we were going to be better, but I guess not,” Popoola said.

Holland said she wants other colleges to learn from the Chapel Hill students who participated in large, maskless gatherings.

“A lot of kids our age don’t understand the result of their actions, and this is kind of showing what can result of that,” Holland said.

Students at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville could face punishments as stiff as expulsion if they are “irresponsible” in hosting big parties, if they won’t cooperate with COVID-19 contact tracing or if they don’t complete forms documenting their self-isolation, the chancellor said Tuesday.

“It’s possible that you could be expelled from school and I will not hesitate to do that if people, our students, are irresponsible,” Chancellor Donde Plowman said in a video conference.

Plowman also noted five cases linked to an off-campus party last week.

Wednesday is the first day of classes at the flagship Knoxville campus. School officials have confirmed 75 active COVID-19 cases there, involving 66 students and nine employees. About 6,500 students have moved in on campus, while another 30,000-plus live off campus.

The campus currently has 270 people in isolation due to contacts, symptoms or positive tests, including 51 students living on campus, Plowman said.

Some neighbors in college towns are fearful that students could spread the virus outside of campus and overwhelm local health care systems. In Flagstaff, Arizona, Vice Mayor Adam Shimoni said he would like the University of Northern Arizona to cancel in-person classes for the semester.

He told the Arizona Daily Sun this month that he wasn’t sure how the influx of students might affect spread of the virus, “but what we do know is that COVID is alive and well … and it’s not necessarily getting better.”

In Ames, Iowa, a retired Iowa State professor wrote in an op-ed to the Des Moines Register that he was alarmed at what he witnessed while driving through the Iowa State campus last weekend.

“Hundreds of students, out on the sidewalks, out on the front lawns, out in the street; in some places, sitting in chairs or milling aimlessly or running around and hugging each other because they hadn’t seen each other since last school year,” Richard Haws said.

He estimated that 1% of the students were wearing masks.

Meanwhile, the University of South Carolina said it would use saliva tests for students, faculty and staff as part of its plan to reopen for in-person classes on Thursday. The tests, which require a single spit sample, are an alternative to nasal swab tests and typically deliver results within 24 hours.

The University of South Carolina said Nephron Pharmaceuticals donated 50,000 sample tubes and a robot for processing samples. The university is one of a handful of universities nationwide approved for the tests.