COVID-19 Roundup: Colleges Struggle to Control Outbreaks

New restrictions on bars and Greek houses emerge as some colleges report 500-plus cases. With more than 100 cases each, SUNY Oneonta and Temple revert to online instruction for two weeks. Officials warn outbreaks aren’t just linked to parties.

August 31, 2020
 

As the COVID-19 case count rises at Georgia College, so too does student and employee pressure on administrators to take more action to keep them safe.

The public liberal arts college in in a rural Georgia town equidistant from Atlanta and Augusta has become one of higher education's hottest coronavirus hot spots, with more than 500 student cases -- about 8 percent of its student body -- as of Friday.

Friday morning, the college's employee union, the United Campus Workers of Georgia at GCSU, held a die-in featuring masked and (mostly) physically distanced students and employees carrying signs such as "I can't teach if I'm dead" and "I won't die for the USG," a reference to the University System of Georgia, of which Georgia College is a part.

UCWGA-GCSU is demanding online learning options for students and instructors, hazard pay, contact tracing, greater diagnostic testing and security from layoffs. The union has said neither testing nor quarantine housing have been provided by the university. Up to a third of students may currently be in quarantine.

College officials, who have issued mild statements and declined to answer numerous questions from Inside Higher Ed reporters about how many students are in quarantine and other issues, have said any decisions about the campus's status must be made in consultation with officials from the system and from the state health department. Georgia's governor, Brian Kemp, has generally opposed aggressive efforts to contain the coronavirus.

As of Saturday morning, 829 people had signed an online petition asking for more flexibility for online learning and other steps to "protect the Georgia College community."

"We request the ability for faculty members to decide for themselves whether they will teach face-to-face or online. For those classes that will still meet face-to-face, students should be able to freely request an online option. Longstanding norms of academic freedom dictate that instructors should be allowed to teach their classes as they see fit. In these extraordinary times, it is vital for faculty to guard their own health and that of their students. Anything less would be an abandonment of our duties as educators.

"We can provide all of the hallmarks of our mission as the state’s only designated public liberal arts institution in an online, safe environment. This is the time to truly embrace our slogan of 'Think Independently. Lead Creatively.' Otherwise, we place ourselves and our students at too great a risk."

In a letter to the editor sent to Inside Higher Ed Friday, one professor described a campus community striving to take care of students and each other.

"All this is to say that we, like so many Americans, are putting one foot in front of another and doing the best we can," wrote Jehan El-Jourbagy, an assistant professor of business law and ethics there. "Some do so better than others. Those who serve Georgia College, from the cafeteria workers to the administrative staff, from classroom instructors to maintenance and custodial staff, everyone has been adjusting, has been working -- dare I say harder than ever before -- to provide a safe and enriching campus environment."

-- Lilah Burke and Doug Lederman


More than 1,000 students have tested positive for COVID at the University of Alabama's flagship campus in Tuscaloosa since Aug. 19. The Tuscaloosa campus is using about 36 percent of rooms set aside for isolation, according to a dashboard updated on Friday afternoon.

The University of Alabama system said in a press release Friday that no students are hospitalized. System officials said their contact tracing efforts have found no evidence of transmission due to in-person instruction.

“We remain concerned that off-campus transmission is our greatest risk," UA system chancellor Finis St. John said in a press release. The chancellor thanked Tuscaloosa city officials for closing the city's bars for two weeks, starting last Monday.

Alabama has also restricted student activities in dorms and Greek houses.

-- Elizabeth Redden


The University of Iowa reported 500 new self-reported cases of COVID among students on Friday, bringing the total since the start of the fall semester to 607. There have been 18 cases involving employees.

Iowa governor Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation last week closing bars in six counties, including surrounding Johnson County, until Sept. 20.

The university said it will "consider additional actions" if the rate of positive cases "does not begin to flatten next week."

Illinois State University has also reported more than 500 positive test results since the start of the semester. The mayor of the town of Normal announced two emergency orders Friday, one limiting the size of gatherings in and around Illinois State to 10 people or less and one requiring bars and restaurants with liquor licenses to only serve customers who are seated.

-- Elizabeth Redden


The State University of New York at Oneonta shifted to remote instruction one week into the semester after it tested all students on campus and 105 tested positive. The university said there will be no in-person classes and limited campus activity for two weeks to allow for contact tracing and quarantining measures to limit spread of the virus.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that in-person learning at New York colleges would be shut down for two weeks if colleges reaches a minimum threshold of 100 cases or if the number of cases reaches 5 percent of their population. Cuomo said Sunday that he deployed 71 contact tracers and eight case investigators to Oneonta to help control the outbreak. He also said the state will open three free rapid-testing sites for Oneonta city residents. 

In a statement, SUNY chancellor Jim Malatras laid the blame on students breaking safety rules.

“Our campus-wide testing results give confirmation to our growing concern that SUNY Oneonta was at risk for more coronavirus cases as a few students blatantly ignored guidelines to keep the campus safe,” Malatras said. “We know that the vast majority of students at SUNY Oneonta -- and across our system -- recognize the importance of COVID-19 safety protocols, and now we need full compliance.”

The university said it has suspended five students in connection with parties, as well as three campus organizations, and it is pursuing additional suspensions. 

-- Elizabeth Redden


Temple University, in Philadelphia, also announced Sunday it would revert to remote instruction for two weeks after testing found 103 active cases.

The decision to "pause" in-person instruction followed new guidance issued by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, which on Saturday advised students to avoid all social gatherings, no matter how small, outside their homes or apartments.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the city's health commissioner, Thomas Farley, recommended the stricter guidelines after learning students who tested positive believe they were infected at small, private gatherings, as opposed to large parties.

Temple's president, Richard M. Englert, told students they should "be doing everything possible to avoid social gatherings, regardless of size, that bring you into contact with persons outside of your household. Introducing new people into your household, even in very small groups, is increasingly being identified as a cause of infections."

-- Elizabeth Redden


Indeed, it's not just parties at Greek houses and gatherings at bars that are fueling concerns. The Los Angeles Times reported that three students at the University of Southern California tested positive after gathering to play Monopoly. Four were infected when they gathered to study.

“Some of what’s difficult is while we hear reports of large parties here and there, that’s actually not the majority of the situations where we are encountering students who are infected,” Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer for USC Student Health, told the newspaper.

“It is five to 10 people getting together sharing a meal; it’s study groups and board games.”

USC reported 147 cases last week. The university is delivering almost all of its instruction online and is strongly discouraging students from returning to the area of the campus.

-- Elizabeth Redden


Four sororities at Kansas State University have coronavirus outbreaks, CNN reported. Health officials in surrounding Riley County said two of the sororities each had six identified cases while the other two had five each.

Health officials urged residents of the affected Greek houses to quarantine for 14 days. “The leaders of local fraternities and sororities are cooperating with health department staff, but we have concerns that the safety messages are not reaching all of the members,” local health officer Julie Gibbs said in a press release Friday.

-- Elizabeth Redden


Northwestern University is scaling back its plans for an in-person fall. The university announced Friday that it would not permit most freshmen and sophomores to come to campus this fall and that it would keep fraternity and sorority houses closed until the winter quarter.

Juniors and seniors will still be allowed to come to the Evanston, Ill., campus this fall, as will graduate and professional students. Northwestern said it would work with juniors and seniors who planned to live in fraternity or sorority housing to identify alternative housing, including university housing options.

"We realize this will create real inconvenience and disappointment for many of you, but the lower density of our campus and housing facilities will help us in our efforts to contain the virus and provide more space to accommodate the isolation and testing that we now anticipate will be needed," Northwestern administrators said in an announcement of their updated fall plans.

-- Elizabeth Redden


Stanford University is closing much of its campus to the public in an effort to align with state of California guidance "limiting external community members from entering the site and using campus resources."

The university has split its campus into five zones and is restricting access to four of the five zones to students, faculty, staff and postdoctoral scholars who are approved to be on campus. The new restrictions go into effect Sept. 1.

"While this program will represent a significant change for our traditionally open campus, reducing the density of individuals to maintain appropriate physical distancing is essential for providing a safer and healthier campus environment," Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne wrote in a message. "It also allows the university to increase the availability of outdoor classroom and social spaces that are needed because of the State guidance. We wish to stress that the zones will be temporary, and we look forward to a time when they are no longer needed."

-- Elizabeth Redden


The University of Arizona said it successfully identified a potential coronavirus outbreak in a dorm before it started by analyzing students' sewage.

As The Washington Post reported, Arizona is screening sewage from its dorms for traces of the virus. After a wastewater sample from one dorm was positive, officials tested the 311 people who live and work there. Two asymptomatic students who tested positive were quarantined.

Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general who is directing Arizona's re-entry task force, suggested that without early detection, the two asymptomatic students could have spread the virus to many others.

“You think about if we had missed it, if we had waited until they became symptomatic and they stayed in that dorm for days, or a week, or the whole incubation period, how many other people would have been infected?” he said.

-- Elizabeth Redden

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