COVID-19 Roundup: White House Advice on Sick Students; More Fall Pivots

Citing rising cases and worries, Lock Haven and Hartwick suspend in-person instruction for two weeks, and Colorado College goes virtual for 2020.

September 2, 2020
 

The Trump administration is offering colleges plenty of advice on various aspects of the coronavirus epidemic -- from how to handle potentially infected students to their approach to playing football.

Tuesday also brought another boomlet of colleges and universities altering their fall plans, with two colleges announcing that they would provide all virtual instruction throughout the semester and two more moving to entirely virtual courses for at least two weeks, all citing increases in COVID-19 cases or the number of quarantined students.

And looking further ahead, at least two community colleges have already said they will hold some or most of their spring courses online, as well.


White House officials are worried college students infected by coronavirus will go back to their home communities and spread the disease. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus coordinator, in a call Monday asked governors to urge college presidents in their states not to send students who test positive for the virus home and to keep them on or near campuses.

Not doing so could lead to another national outbreak, Birx said, according to an aide to one of the governors who was on the call, which included Vice President Mike Pence and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Birx cited the University of Wisconsin at Madison as an example. The university has set up housing for students to isolate themselves if they test positive, and for others at high risk of having been exposed to quarantine themselves, so that the rest of campus can continue functioning.

The call was first reported by The Daily Beast. The site quoted Birx as having said, “Sending these individuals back home in their asymptomatic state to spread the virus in their hometown or among their vulnerable households could really recreate what we experienced over the June time frame in the South. So I think every university president should have a plan for not only testing but caring for their students that need to isolate.”

Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government and public affairs, said colleges already are doing what Birx urged. “Any college that brings students back to campus will have a clear plan in place to isolate those who test positive and to provide medical assistance to individuals who need it,” he said. “There is simply no way that a campus would go through the extensive planning related to reopening in the COVID environment -- cleaning, testing, tracing and distancing -- and fail to ask themselves, ‘How do we isolate and treat students who test positive?’”

-- Kery Murakami


A day after an adviser to the Trump administration said that college football can be played safely during the pandemic, President Trump himself sought to pressure the Big Ten Conference to reverse its decision not to play sports this fall.

On Monday Scott Atlas, a new member of the president's coronavirus task force, said that college football players “are among the most fit people in the universe. They’re very low-risk people,” Click Orlando reported. “They have testing, they have doctors. This is the best possible healthy environment for the healthiest people. And so to start saying that we can’t have these sports when so many people in the community also depend upon the athletes themselves or their families -- this shouldn’t really be a point of controversy,” Atlas said.

President Trump tweeted Tuesday that he'd spoken by telephone with the commissioner of the Big Ten, which joined the Pac-12 Conference in calling off the 2020 season. "Had a very productive conversation with Kevin Warren, Commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, about immediately starting up Big Ten football. Would be good (great!) for everyone - Players, Fans, Country. On the one yard line!" the president tweeted.

ESPN quoted a Big Ten source as saying, "Nothing has changed. Nothing. We have to get all the medical questions answered before we can even bring back a plan to the presidents for approval."

-- Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman


The number of colleges that have abandoned or altered their plans to bring many or most students back to their physical campuses this fall has grown by a handful so far this week.

Colorado College is among them. First the liberal arts college in Colorado Springs quarantined students in one of its three residence halls for two weeks after a student tested positive for COVID-19. Then it had to do the same with its other two residence halls, just as the first residence hall completed its quarantine period.

On Tuesday, college officials conceded that "despite our rigorous testing and response protocols … our earlier plans to bring the rest of our student body to campus … are no longer feasible." The college plans to deliver classes remotely for the rest of 2020 and require all students not in quarantine to leave campus by mid-September.

Colorado is probably best known for its block scheduling plan, which multiple colleges copied this year presuming that it would give them more flexibility to respond to potential COVID-19-required pivots.

The college's COVID-19 dashboard shows only three positive cases (out of 1,111 tests), but it has not been updated since last Wednesday. The dashboard showed about a quarter of its 805 students living on campus as being in either quarantine or isolation, again as of last Wednesday.

LeMoyne-Owen College, in Tennessee, announced late Monday that it would remain virtual (as it had started the fall term) through the spring. "Instead of thinking about returning to 'normal' we must think of new and innovative ways to have the necessary learning and experiential experiences as well as continuing to provide the HBCU family experience students have come to rely on from LeMoyne-Owen College," Interim President Carol Johnson Dean said in a letter to students and employees.

Meanwhile, two colleges in the Northeast, Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania and New York's Hartwick College, said Tuesday that they would shift to entirely virtual instruction for at least two weeks.

Lock Haven's campus announcement said the university had set a positivity rate of 5 percent as a trigger for re-evaluating "its ability to provide a safe on-campus learning environment." The rate hit 4 percent Monday afternoon and 4.9 percent Tuesday morning, the statement said.

President Robert Pignatello said, "Off-campus gatherings in confined areas where social distancing and mask wearing were not practiced is the culprit here … This situation should demonstrate to everyone the insidious nature of COVID-19, its infectivity, and the critical nature of individual personal responsibility."

Pignatello said testing would be available to -- but not required of -- students and employees before in-person instruction might resume on Sept. 21.

Hartwick officials cited community spread near the campus, not the two campus incidences of COVID-19, as their reason to pivot to remote learning for two weeks. A "hybrid" semester of in-person and remote classes began on the New York campus Monday, but President Margaret Drugovich said the temporary move to fully virtual was "a precautionary measure to protect the health of all members of our campus-based community."

-- Doug Lederman


As many colleges are still striving (and in many cases struggling) to make an on-campus fall work, some institutions are already planning for a virtual spring.

Shasta College, a two-year institution in California, and Joliet Junior College, in Illinois, both said they would offer instruction heavily online in the next term.

Shasta said that the lab and other hands-on courses it is offering in person this fall would be offered that way in the spring, too, but that the majority of courses that are being offered virtually this fall would be delivered that way come 2021.

“In our evaluations for how to approach spring course offerings, we carefully considered the safety of our students and staff and the potential disruption a rise in cases for COVID-19 would cause during an active semester,” said Joe Wyse, the college's superintendent/president. “We firmly believe that this plan will provide our students with the safest, least disruptive avenue to earning their degrees/certificates during this pandemic.”

Joliet's president, Judy Mitchell, said in a news release that its current approach of labs in person and lecture courses online remains the best way to serve students facing "unprecedented stress, frustration, and fear."

-- Doug Lederman


More than 1,000 students have tested positive for COVID-19 at Illinois State University roughly two weeks into the fall semester.

The 1,023 cases the university reported as of Tuesday represent nearly 5 percent of its student body, WGLT reported. The university has conducted about 4,400 tests at three locations on campus since Aug. 17, and its testing positivity rate for the last week is 24 percent.

Illinois State is located in Normal, Ill., which has enacted emergency orders aimed at curbing the spread of infections. One of those orders is a temporary ban on gatherings of more than 10 people near campus. The other in part requires customers at bars and restaurants that serve alcohol to be seated to be served.

University leaders say they have moved 80 percent of classes online, are encouraging faculty and staff members to work remotely if possible, and have de-densified dorms. But Illinois State’s on-campus coronavirus testing is reportedly slower and more expensive than tests being used in large numbers at the state flagship, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Illinois State was forced to change its testing strategy after the federal government redirected testing supplies to nursing homes -- a series of events that contributed to university leaders deciding to shift plans toward online classes about a month ago, as the start of the semester neared.

-- Rick Seltzer

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