The conversation about college in the age of the coronavirus is an ongoing and ever-changing one. Just weeks ago, the question on many college students’ minds was whether their schools were going to offer in-person learning, online classes, or a hybrid of the two. Now, many students who were told they would be returning to campus (or arriving for the first time) to attend at least some of their classes in-person, are having those plans reversed—some after they’ve already moved into their dorms and started the semester.
Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame experienced this first hand this week. After their first week of classes on-campus, UNC reported that 177 people were in isolation after contracting the virus, while another 349 were in quarantine due to possible exposure. In response, the school has decided to move all of their classes online this semester in order to “de-densify” the campus, as outlined in a statement sent out to the student body. Now, they have asked anyone living on campus to pack up and leave.
Similarly, Notre Dame released a statement announcing they would switch to a temporary online curriculum as a way to combat the spread of the virus on campus after almost 150 people tested positive in just a few weeks. They will be closing campus for two weeks in an attempt to stop the spread of COVID among their student body and faculty.
That means students who were just getting settled into their dorms and preparing for this already strange semester are being uprooted, and left to find new housing, adjust to online learning, and figure out how to stay healthy through it all.
“I think everybody was definitely anxious going in because there just wasn’t a lot of communication throughout the summer,” said Udhay Khullar, a junior at UNC. “We were told it was OK to come back to campus and I think everybody had faith that the school had thought through what they were going to do.”
According to Udhay, though, it quickly became clear that wasn’t the case.
“When we got here, it was a lot more disorganized than we thought.” Udhay, 20, explained that while on-campus, many students were not social distancing and the mechanisms the school put in place were seemingly ineffective.
“They were just trusting students to do their best and within the first weekend there were Snapchat stories of people at parties,” Udhay continued. “We knew at that point there was no way people were not catching [coronavirus].”
Julia Louw, a current junior at UNC admitted that “people were skeptical in the beginning,” but they wanted to come back to campus. Julia was entering the semester with all of her classes already moved online, but she had an apartment lined up so she figured she would still move to Chapel Hill.
Now, students are rushing to the campus health building to get COVID tests, Julia among them. One of the other girls in her apartment tested positive for the virus, but when Julia went to get a test, she was told that since she had no symptoms, it wasn’t recommended.
“It was kind of concerning to me because what if I was positive and now I’ve been spreading it this whole time,” said Julia who was able to eventually get a test and was negative for the virus.
While they may be getting all of the headlines, UNC and Notre Dame are not alone. Just days before their fall semester is supposed to begin, colleges across the country are changing their plans. While previously, Columbia University told undergraduates that they could house 60% of them on campus, on Friday, the students were informed via e-mail that the school was limiting on-campus living to specific “undergraduates who must be present on campus due to personal or academic circumstances.”
Similarly, Michigan State University, which begins classes on September 2nd, released a statement on Tuesday “asking undergraduate students who planned to live in our residence halls this fall to stay home and continue their education with MSU remotely.” Those living off campus were also encouraged to stay home and employees were asked to work remotely.
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How did we get here?
So, why did UNC, Notre Dame, and other large schools open up in the middle of a pandemic? In late July, the Orange County Health Department, which includes Chapel Hill in its jurisdiction, recommended that UNC “consider virtual classes for the entire fall semester,” or at the very least, the first five weeks. In response, the school’s chancellor, Kevin M. Guskiewicz, said that he “took [the health department’s] recommendations very seriously,” and while he did make changes to “de-densify” the campus, he believed they were “well prepared for the start of the fall semester.”
The president of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins, offered a similar justification entering into fall 2020, only to have to close his campus after just one week of classes as well. Back in May, Father Jenkins wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, defending his decision to reopen.
“Our decision to return to on-campus classes for the fall semester was guided by three principles that arise from our core university goals,” he wrote. “First, we strive to protect the health of our students, faculty, staff and their loved ones. Second, we endeavor to offer an education of the whole person — body, mind and spirit — and we believe that residential life and personal interactions with faculty members and among students are critical to such an education. Finally, we seek to advance human understanding through research, scholarship and creative expression.”
Father Jenkins explained that measures were being instituted to protect the student body and staff. He contended that failing to reopen the campus would “risk failing to provide the next generation of leaders the education they need and to do the research and scholarship so valuable to our society.”
As the semester started at UNC and Notre Dame, precautions were put into place. At UNC, doors were specifically designated as either entrances or exits to help with traffic flow. Common spaces like dining halls, gyms, and libraries were closed or running at reduced capacity. Masks were required throughout campus and hand sanitizer stations could be accessed no matter where you were. Notre Dame also had systems in place, like outdoor spaces throughout campus to make up for the reduced capacities of their buildings and hand sanitizer stations placed at the entrances of all buildings. Despite this, there are currently 336 cases of coronavirus on the Notre Dame campus as they move online for two weeks.
“With the advice and encouragement of Dr. Mark Fox of the St. Joseph County Health Department, we believe we can take steps short of sending students home for remote instruction, at least for the time being, while still protecting the health and safety of the campus community,” Father Jenkins told students in a virtual meeting on Tuesday.
Until September 2nd, when on-campus classes are slated to begin again at Notre Dame, students living off-campus have been asked to remain there. In a statement, the university also announced that both off and on-campus gatherings should being limited to 10 people or less.
But it’s hard for schools to regulate the behavior of students living off-campus and it remains unclear if two weeks will be enough to flush out the cases and return to the original plan of an open campus.
According to Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, medical epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, the schools can promote safe practices, but the problems occur “after hours.”
“It’s the large parties,” he explained, though he doesn’t necessarily blame the students for wanting to socialize. “I think it’s natural that students are going to gravitate to getting back with friends and making new friends within these institutions, especially those who have been without much social contact for the last few months.”
In Dr. Kim-Farley’s opinion, the big factor is the spread of COVID in the campus’ surrounding community. “The problem is trying to reopen when you still have community transmission going on at fairly high levels and the fact that you’re having students, not so much within the classrooms or dorm settings, but outside in party type settings.”
Orange County is currently experiencing 176 cases of coronavirus per every 100,000 residents, while St. Joseph country, were Notre Dame is located, is experiencing 134. According to Dr. Kim-Farley, that’s a very high transmission rate, so when students are mingling in big groups at parties, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing the virus spread.
Four clusters of the virus were confirmed on UNC’s campus ahead of their decision to move online, one being at the school’s Sigma Nu fraternity. It’s unclear, though, if the cluster is a result of a party or simply many people living in close quarters, as the other tree clusters were found in residence halls and an apartment complex. At Notre Dame, though, Father Jenkins says that contact-tracing indicates that it is, in fact, “off-campus gatherings” that are to blame for the spread.
“Students infected at those gatherings passed it on to others, who in turn have passed the virus on to others, resulting in the positive cases we have seen,” he said.
What happens to students now?
As Notre Dame works to curb the virus and figure out their next steps, students living on-campus at UNC are packing up their dorms and trying to figure out where to go.
Students have been asked by the school to cancel their housing contract by August 25th and “return to their permanent home for the fall semester.” Those unable to do so will be allowed to submit their situation to be reviewed in an attempt to stay on campus.
“It’s very stressful for a lot of students,” Udhay admitted. “They’re basically giving us just a few days to leave campus. A lot of people don’t have access to reliable alternative housing.” Both of Udhay’s parents are 60 and since he is not going to have the recommended 14 days to quarantine, he doesn’t feel comfortable going back home to live with them. “I just don’t have a place to go if I can’t live on campus. It’s so disorganized.”
Udhay does have the option to try to get placed in another dorm on campus, but it’s unclear how many students are in need of that option, as well as UNC’s capacity to house them. On top of all of this stress, the students also have their normal workload to deal with, as classes are still currently taking place.
“We still have assignments due and there just isn’t a lot of flexibility there,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to push for a little bit of an academic break, just to give everybody a couple days to figure out where they’re going to live, but we haven’t heard anything from the school except get out.”
Where did things go wrong?
While many students are shaking their fists at the administration, others are placing blame elsewhere. In a blog post, Barbara K. Rimer, the dean of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, put the spotlight on the school’s Board of Governors who govern over the entire UNC system.
“Our chancellor and provost tried to make decisions from [the foundation of evidence and science], with advice from some of the world’s best infectious disease experts. However, they have not had full freedom to act since the [Board of Governors] told system universities they had to reopen and that individual university chancellors could not make those decisions independently,” she claimed.
Still, students are upset with the school’s administration. The editorial board for The Daily Tarheel, UNC’s student newspaper, condemned the university in an editorial. “University leadership should have expected students, many of whom are now living on their own for the first time, to be reckless,” they said. They admit that the students “are not faultless,” but “it was the University’s responsibility to disincentivize such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in-person earlier on.”
Alexis Gage, who is currently getting her pre-health post-baccalaureate certificate agrees that it was “bold” of UNC to depend on the students the way they did.
“These students haven’t been in a social environment in a while,” she said. “For some people, this is their first college experience. You can’t put college students on a campus and not expect them to act like college students.”
Dr Kim-Farley is hoping students will learn from this situation.
“I’m sure there are a lot of disappointed students and I think this might be a wake up call to realize, look, this is serious,” he said. Ideally, students will realize that in order to stop the spread of the virus, in order to continue with in-person classes, the large gatherings have to stop.
Dr. Kim-Farley equates the situation to the smoking epidemic. “Smoking behaviors are changing now where it used to be cool to smoke,” he said. “Now it’s not cool anymore.” He’s hoping the same shift will happen when it comes to being responsible in the time of COVID. “It’s not cool to be at big events. It’s not cool to be not wearing a mask. It’s not cool to be hanging out in close bunches of people,” he explained.
“We have to change the norm of behavior so that students can stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.”
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