Sep 8, 2020 - Health

The college coronavirus meltdown

Illustration of a melting desk.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tens of thousands of college students across the country have gotten infected with the coronavirus, and thousands more are being sent home to potentially spread the virus to their families and communities.

Why it matters: These concentrated outbreaks — and any subsequent mishandling of them — could fuel larger outbreaks across the country as we head into a fall that's already expected to be extremely difficult.

Driving the news: Colleges and universities have found at least 51,000 coronavirus cases already, according to the New York Times. Illinois State University, the University of South Carolina, Auburn University, the University of Alabama and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have all reported more than 1,000 cases.

  • Many colleges are sending students home in response to outbreaks which infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci called the "worst thing you could do," per ABC News.
  • White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx urged students to isolate at college. "Do not return home if you're positive and spread the virus to your family, your aunts, your uncles, your grandparents."
  • Some states with rising case counts overall are also those with large numbers of college cases, as my colleagues reported last week.

Between the lines: The traditional college experience is inherently social. Schools are struggling to keep students from partying, let alone deal with crowded student housing situations.

  • Some colleges have resorted to virtual learning and asking students to return home, while others have allowed students to continue living on campus.
  • There's also a hybrid approach like the one adopted by the University of Mississippi, which encourages students who need to quarantine "to consult with your family to consider your options for quarantine, including returning to your family residence," as ABC reported.
  • Many colleges have also set up isolation housing, but with varying degrees of success. Some students in isolation at the University of Alabama, for example, have been critical of the process, reports.

What we're watching: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has one of the largest case counts in the country, ordered a two-week quasi-lockdown beginning last week. Students are permitted to go to class, get tested for the coronavirus, shop for groceries and do a handful of other activities.

  • It will serve as a good indication of whether colleges can get outbreaks under control, and thus an indication of the future of in-person learning.
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