Accessibility links

Breaking News

US Colleges Struggle to Balance COVID-19 With Classes

FILE - Masked students cross an intersection on the campus of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., Sept. 10, 2020.

Colleges and universities are seeing an increase of cases of COVID-19 as students return to campus, with some seeing rapid increases while others are keeping a lid on the spread of disease.

Four sources are compiling information about colleges and COVID-19, including case-tracking maps: The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative (C2i), and Inside Higher Education.

So far, there is no unified national coordinated plan from higher education on how to handle the spread of the coronavirus on university campuses across the United States, say experts, including Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), and Frederick M. Lawrence, former president of Brandeis University and CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, in separate interviews with VOA.

Tracking COVID-19

In early August, before the fall semester started at many schools, nearly half (48%) of more than 1,275 colleges and universities planned for an in-person semester, while 35% proposed a hybrid model and 14% online, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which has been tracking colleges since spring 2020.

But as of October 1, only 4% of nearly 3,000 institutions were “fully in person” for the fall semester, 23% reported a “primarily in person” teaching situation, and 21% offered a hybrid of in-person and online courses for students. Thirty-four percent were “primarily online” with 10% fully online. Eight percent remained undecided or “other,” according to data from the Chronicle and Davidson.

Some of those closures came after students returned to campus or nearby, and COVID-19 cases spiked. James Madison University in Virginia halted in-person classes completely, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison saw an increase in cases that forced the school to enter a two-week lockdown.

State University of New York-Cortland, with 6,800 students, converted to all online classes October 6 after a spike in cases. At SUNY-Oneonta, nearly 700 students tested positive for COVID-19, and the university moved to online-only classes for the rest of the semester. SUNY-Oswego returned to in-person learning on October 5 after a two-week closure begun when more than 100 cases were confirmed on campus.

FILE - A woman wears a mask as she walks on campus at San Diego State University, Sept. 2, 2020, in San Diego.
FILE - A woman wears a mask as she walks on campus at San Diego State University, Sept. 2, 2020, in San Diego.

Most U.S. colleges and universities are not conducting widespread coronavirus tests despite the rise of cases on campuses, according to an NPR analysis.

Data of more than 1,400 colleges compiled by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson and analyzed by NPR show that more than 2 in 3 colleges with in-person classes have no testing plan or are doing limited testing for only students at risk.

Universities with high numbers of COVID-19 cases and “no clear plan” include Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (29,300 undergraduate students enrolled), Troy University (12,995 undergraduate students enrolled) and Southeast Missouri State University (9,524 undergraduate students enrolled).

The University of Alabama has the highest average number of daily cases with 82.6 per 100,000 in the county containing the college. The university is conducting random surveillance testing, according to its website.

Student reactions

Despite measures to keep schools safe, many students and staff raised concerns before campuses reopened.

“So you’re telling me that we can't control the spread of covid between 42 people on campus during orientation, but we’re going to bring 20,000+ students to that same space in 3 weeks?? I want to be back @MissouriState. But we need more than a vague plan to get us there,” tweeted Jasmine Crawford from Missouri State University.

“Friday night in State College, PA. @GovernorTomWolf we need another lockdown. @pennstate you may be able to enforce social distancing on campus, but students in State College = students in bars. Take that into account,” tweeted Sage McKeand, an undergraduate student at Penn State University.

In June, more than half of 7,234 Purdue University faculty and staff reported they “felt unsafe about returning to campus for a fall semester with in-person classes,” according to The Indianapolis Star.

Over 90% said they were “not confident students would ‘socially distance appropriately outside the classroom (e.g., on weekends, at bars and parties).’ ”

FILE - College students wear masks out of concern for the coronavirus on the Boston College campus, Sept. 17, 2020, in Boston.
FILE - College students wear masks out of concern for the coronavirus on the Boston College campus, Sept. 17, 2020, in Boston.

Sherry Pagoto, a clinical psychologist at the University of Connecticut, surveyed college students about returning to campus in July, and found that the students that responded to their survey agreed that the required 14-day quarantine before the semester started was “not realistic” and “will likely fail.”

Pagoto and research assistant Laurie Groshon interviewed seven focus groups of four to seven students each.

Students said they were “pessimistic” about wearing masks during social events, although they said it would depend on the “social norms” of groups and stated they were unsure about how to hold one another accountable.

Students also stated that the threshold for closing campuses should be “based on several weeks of increasing cases on campus and should not wait until someone dies.”

The status quo

The University of Alabama (UA) and the University of Georgia (UGA) have the most cases, according to a New York Times case tracker. As of September 25, 2,690 confirmed cases had been reported at UA and 3,532 confirmed cases had been reported at UGA.

Some students say their universities have not been careful with containing cases.

At UGA, Max Appelbaum, a fourth-year atmospheric sciences major from Trion, Georgia, lives in off-campus housing with two roommates. He is taking two online classes and two in-person classes.

Appelbaum said in a message to VOA that he was “disgusted” and that it was “incredibly irresponsible to come back to campus at all.”

“Basically, the administration isn't listening to its own researchers who are studying coronavirus and are telling them that their plan is inadequate and that it was not safe to reopen campus,” he messaged VOA.

Greg Trevor, executive director for marketing and communications at UGA, disagreed.

Trevor said the university consulted many health experts before deciding to resume in-person classes. The health experts included a medical oversight task force, composed of the dean of the College of Public Health, the executive director of the University Health Center and the campus dean of the Augusta University/UGA Medical Partnership.

"From the outset of the pandemic, the University of Georgia’s primary commitment has been to the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students. We worked diligently — with the engagement of faculty health and medical experts — to prepare our campus for the resumption of in-person instruction this fall in a manner consistent with federal and state health and safety guidelines,” he wrote in an email to VOA.

FILE - A graduate assistant sits in an empty auditorium during an online lecture on the first day of classes, Aug. 17, 2020, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
FILE - A graduate assistant sits in an empty auditorium during an online lecture on the first day of classes, Aug. 17, 2020, at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Other large universities have had a relatively small number of coronavirus cases.

California State University-Fullerton (CSUF) has had three cases among its 35,169 undergraduate students.

CSUF laid out a six-step plan for readmitting students to campus and ensuring the safety of faculty and students. The plan is now in its third phase, according to its coronavirus website.

“For those who will be on campus in the fall, it will be each person’s responsibility to adhere to all safety protocols to reduce the risk of infection among our campus community members and their families. This includes using face masks, practicing good hygiene and maintaining social distance,” it wrote.

If anyone is exposed or comes in contact with someone exposed, this person “must remain off campus, self-quarantine, and follow all applicable public health orders,” it continued.

Crucial practices

The University of Wisconsin-Superior has had only one case of coronavirus out of its 2,259 undergraduate students and, according to Jordan Milan, director of strategic communications and special assistant to the chancellor, this case was not linked to the 54% of classes that are on campus.

“We recognize that the success of this model is dependent on our on-campus community engaging in social distancing, wearing a mask and keeping hands sanitized. We have reminders of these practices posted throughout campus,” she wrote in an email to VOA.

In addition to signs about social distancing and wearing masks on campus, there are three different flow charts of procedures that students should follow if they contract coronavirus living on campus, off campus or in a distance-learning environment.

As Milan mentioned, the spread of coronavirus on campuses depends on student behavior and whether they obey social distancing guidelines and other policies laid out by their universities.

Appelbaum noted that if he saw students disobeying rules UGA laid out, he would ask people to put their masks on and observe social distancing. “I just want to be as safe as I can be in a bad situation,” he said.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly included Michigan Technological University among institutions that do not have a clear plan to deal with the coronavirus.