At Colleges Across the Nation, 'the Experiment Is Faltering'

Lockdowns, disciplinary measures are what schools are contending with as virus numbers rise
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 4, 2020 10:30 AM CDT
One School's Tactic: Lock Down Students in Dorms
The campus of Pennsylvania's Gettysburg College.   (Getty Images/AppalachianViews)

College students and their parents kept their fingers crossed as higher-education institutions across the nation opened up over the past few weeks for the fall semester, hoping that school safety measures would keep COVID-19 at bay and allow students to approach some sense of academic normalcy. But, as Pilar Melendez at the Daily Beast notes, "the experiment is faltering." Dozens of colleges are now reporting spikes in coronavirus cases since school began, forcing schools to quarantine students, discipline them for violating safety protocols—even send them home in some cases, which is the opposite of what infectious disease experts are recommending. More on what's going on with schools across the US:

  • Keeping tabs: The New York Times has a tracker monitoring cases at more than 1,500 US colleges and universities, including at every public four-year college. So far, since the pandemic began in March, there have been upward of 51,000 cases in total, with at least 60 deaths.
  • Not messing around: Students at Gettysburg College are getting an extreme taste of what an on-campus lockdown looks like. About two dozen students recently tested positive, and students there have now been told to hole up in their dorm rooms 24/7 for a full week, with respites allowed only for bathroom or food runs, to get a COVID-19 test, or to visit a counselor. Anyone caught breaching the lockdown will get kicked off campus, the Washington Post reports.
  • SUNY shutdown: Less than two weeks after school started at SUNY Oneonta, the school in upstate New York has made a drastic decision: It's sending everyone home. Per the New York Times, the administration announced Thursday that, because of more than 500 COVID-19 cases among its 6,000 or so students, in-person classes have been nixed for the rest of the semester. Students weren't made to show they'd been tested for the virus before they arrived on campus last month, and they weren't tested once they got there.

  • Fraternity row: At Indiana University, the virus has seen an "alarming" spike in fraternity and sorority houses, with more than half of the residents testing positive in some of them. The school this week urged students to move out of those accommodations. "IU Bloomington and its public health experts believe Greek houses are not safe given the pandemic conditions," the school tweeted Thursday, per Reuters.
  • Test drive: Even schools that seemed to be approaching the virus right are having issues. NPR reports that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was initially lauded for its massive COVID-19 testing program, announced on Wednesday a two-week lockdown for undergrads after its numbers rose. Although an epidemiology professor at the school gives credit to the program for catching the problem in its early stages, she says it's not a panacea. "We cannot test our way out of this pandemic," she notes.
  • Pointing the finger: Slate notes that blame for what's happening at colleges is directed mostly at students, and it details what administrators say are the behaviors driving these outbreaks, including flouting safety guidelines and flocking to bars and parties.
  • Not so fast: Some say it's not students' fault that they're in this position in the first place, that harsh punishments won't work, and that more positively framed messages are needed to make a difference. In other words, the adults in the room shouldn't "condescend [to] them or yell at them, but ... work together with them," Kenneth Elmore, Boston University's dean of students, tells Inside Higher Ed. "Recognize that we make mistakes. Collectively, we've been trying to hold it together for a long time, and we've got to continue to do that."
  • To snitch or not to snitch: All of this leaves students who want to follow virus mandates in a precarious predicament—whether to turn in rule-breaking classmates. The New York Times explores this "deeper tension" on campus, with some schools even sending out memos asking students to narc.
  • Whistleblower wannabes and wafflers: For some, blowing classmates' cover isn't a hard choice. "I'm not going to be having my life put at risk because people decided to be selfish," an NYU grad student tells the Times. "These rules are for the good of everyone here." For others, the choice isn't quite so easy. "Before coming here, I remember thinking, 'Yeah, I'll definitely report people if they're going to parties," a freshman at Binghamton University says. "It's a lot harder to want to when you're living and going to class with everyone."
(More colleges and universities stories.)

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