Aug 30, 2020 - Economy & Business

Colleges vs. parties

Illustration of a hand drawing a line in chalk that reads six feet between two red cups
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

College reopening plans are crumbling across the country — even as administrators take drastic steps to make the fall work.

The big picture: The close to 2,000 campuses trying to reopen this fall are finding that it's nearly impossible to prevent outbreaks when you bring together thousands of undergraduates who've been starved of social contact all summer.

Several reopening plans have already failed.

  • The University of Alabama — which had planned for face-to-face instruction in 80% of classes and was allowing indoor gatherings of up to 50 people — has had the worst case volume, with positive tests approaching 600 in just one week.
  • UNC Chapel Hill sent students home after discovering outbreaks linked to parties at dorms and frats.
  • Notre Dame moved students to remote learning after its own outbreaks.

Other colleges are attempting to control partying by taking steep disciplinary measures against the students that do gather.

  • Northeastern sent warnings to 115 freshmen who said in an Instagram poll that they plan to party. The university went as far as to threaten to rescind admissions.
  • Purdue and Syracuse have both suspended students who have been caught partying, and UConn has evicted them.

But universities that are reopening without substantive testing and tracing strategies can't just point fingers at the students, experts say.

  • "It’s irresponsible and the outcome is predictable, and blaming the students is just misplaced," says Joshua Salomon, a professor of medicine at Stanford. "A lot of these school reopening plans that bring students back without testing are like turning on a faucet and sternly telling the water not to flow."
  • Colleges could be making things worse by trying to pin the blame on the students. "If there's too much scolding and too much animosity, it becomes an us vs. them, the students vs. the university," Sherry Pagoto, a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, tells Axios.
  • "The much better approach is to say, 'We’re all on the same side here. We all want this to work.'"

Some plans do seem to be working.

  • Public health experts say the best way to prevent outbreaks on campuses from turning into outbreaks is to test every student every few days, Salomon tells Axios.
  • The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is doing just that. It conducted 17,000 tests on the first day of classes alone. "Everybody's watching U of I right now," says Salomon.

The bottom line: "I think it would be great for students to hear some empathy," Pagoto says. "Like, 'this is hard. This is your freshman year or your senior year, and that sucks.'"

  • "Before we go and dunk on them, we have to think about what that's like."
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