When Caroline Rose moved into her dorm at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in August, there was none of the usual frantic flurry of meeting new resident assistants and greeting old friends in hallways.
Roommates were told to move in on separate days, and everyone was told to wear masks, including in shared bathrooms. Students were given designated move-in times so there wouldn’t be a rush of people.
Related: ‘I’m extremely nervous’: US grapples with in-person or virtual classes
Even before students got on to campus, they were instructed to sign a “stop the spread” agreement, acknowledging that they would follow guidelines to mitigate an outbreak of Covid-19, including staying in groups of no more than 10 students, or suffer consequences.
The consequences came soon enough. Less than a week after classes started the university, which has a student population of about 20,000, reported 500 coronavirus cases. In-person classes were halted and students were sent home as James Madison shifted to primarily online courses.
For students and faculty members at the many colleges and universities across the US who have welcomed students back on campus for the fall semester, dreams of a life on campus are far from guaranteed as the coronavirus continues to spread.
Even with the contract, Rose, a sophomore at James Madison, said it became pretty clear that once students got on campus social distancing would be difficult, and some students were clearly not planning to hold up their side of the agreement.
Dining halls seemed crowded, even though they were limiting the number of students inside. Pictures of maskless parties began popping up on social media.
Within the first week of classes, some of which were being held in-person, professors said they received emails from students who said either they or their roommates had tested positive for Covid-19.
“Everybody knew pretty much that it was going to happen at some point. It was kind of a matter of how long are we going to make it,” Rose said. “You’re talking to people, and you’re like, ‘How long do you think we’re going to be here?’ The general consensus I think was less than a month, and that ended up being accurate.”
Many schools have just started classes after the Labor Day weekend, but multiple schools that are already weeks into their school year have seen large surges in cases. Active Covid-19 cases reached over 1,000 at schools such as Illinois State University, University of South Carolina and University of Alabama, with some continuing to rise.
Colleges and universities, which rely on the tuition and room and board fees of students to operate, spent the summer scrambling to come up with reopening plans so the fall semester could resemble some kind of normal. With little guidance from the federal government on how colleges and universities should reopen their campuses, Covid-19 mitigation efforts have varied dramatically from school to school.
Some had students get tested at home before they came to campus, others had students tested once they arrived. Some did not test students at all until clusters were discovered on campus. One campus, the University of Arizona, is testing sewage coming from student dorms to detect any potential asymptomatic cases.
Many campuses have newly dedicated “quarantine dorms” for students who have tested positive, while others have contracts with local hotels and inns. Schools have threatened to shut down campus for the fall semester if students do not follow guidelines and cases continue to increase. Others have resorted to targeting individual students who break the rules with suspensions.
One thing was clear from the beginning: Covid-19 cases on college campuses were pretty much inevitable. “We should assume for planning purposes that there will be people on campus with Covid-19 infections, regardless of what precautions are taken,” Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Congress in June.
To figure out what would cause an influx of cases on campus, one would simply need to know what college and college students are like. Huge parties are, of course, commonplace and are considered a staple of the college experience. Big classes with hundreds of students packed into a lecture hall are common too. Everything from kitchen sinks to showers are often shared between multiple students.
Like Rose at James Madison University, Elisa Kadackal, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), said for many students it was a matter of when, not if, its campus of 30,000 students would have to close down.
As students started to move back into the Chapel Hill area in August, Kadackal could see that the campus was becoming too crowded for comfort. People were posting pictures on social media of huge frat parties, and loud music and chatter could be heard from some off-campus houses. Some students at the nearby grocery store were not wearing masks. And besides the parties, just the idea of being close to other students in class made Kadackal nervous. “I can’t ensure that John sitting next to me is not going to try to scratch his nose in the middle of class,” she said.
Just the way college is set up made reopening risky, Kadackal said. “You are bringing a bunch of students on campus, they’re all going to be breathing the same air, not everybody is going to wear a mask properly.”
I can’t ensure that John sitting next to me is not going to try to scratch his nose in the middle of class
Within the first week of classes, nearly 1,000 students and five faculty members tested positive at the university. UNC promptly reversed course, shutting down its campus and moving all classes online for the rest of the semester. Leaders of the university said, despite months of trying to reopen campus, the influx of cases presented an “untenable situation”.
Faculty and staff members at schools have been vocal in their criticism of school reopening plans, especially since some institutions are requiring instructors to hold in-person classes. Faculty, along with some students, held a “die-in” protest at the University of Georgia in August. One professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania received a reprimand on his record for posting on Facebook that it was “quite possible that people who come on to Juniata’s campus will die”. One professor at Yale University told her students that “college life will look more like a hospital unit than a residential college”.
Michael Innis-Jiminez, a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama, said that many faculty members at his university have been wondering why the institution has not taken more serious actions as cases on campus have risen to nearly 2,000. Instead, the university’s top medical dean said that he was “cautiously optimistic” as new cases a day dropped from 164 to 125 last Friday. Some students were forced out of their dorms last month as the university moved to dedicate more dorms to quarantine students.
“It’s about whether the university has the capacity to handle the sick people,” said Innis-Jiminez. “Doesn’t matter how many are sick, it’s just as long as we don’t overflow. That’s what is scary because most of the students are going to be asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms.”
The consequences of this dispiriting start to the school year are likely to have long-term effects.
Innis-Jiminez said there were specific concerns about how the university will be sending students home for Thanksgiving as in-person classes are scheduled to end right before the holiday. Universities have already come under fire for sending students home after outbreaks on campus, potentially sending the virus to students’ home communities.
Earlier this month, as Rose and other would-be campus students were unpacking their bags, Dr Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease expert, warned that sending students home after an outbreak on campus is “the worst thing you could do”.