Jan 11, 2021 - Health

Colleges embrace on-campus classes despite COVID surges

Illustration of a backpack with an open lock coming out of the top

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Many colleges will bring students back to campus for the spring semester, with or without widespread vaccination.

Why it matters: Several colleges that reopened campuses in the fall were tied to big outbreaks. But schools say they've learned from that experience and improved their safety protocols, and are now confident that they can manage fuller campuses.

Driving the news: Only about 35% of colleges — including both public and private institutions — will be fully or primarily online this semester, said Chris Marsicano, executive director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College.

  • Brown University will roughly triple the number of students in campus housing, the Brown Daily Herald reports. And Harvard University will nearly double its capacity, to 3,100 individual student bedrooms.

Where it stands: Schools are implementing more rigorous safety measures, or modifying their operations, in the hopes of avoiding more outbreaks.

  • The University of North Carolina system recently announced that students will be required to get tested before they return to campus for the spring.
  • The University of Florida, which is offering more face-to-face courses despite faculty objections, is requiring all students on campus be tested every two weeks.
  • Mississippi State University delayed its spring term by five days because some students may not have quarantined during break.

The other side: Pennsylvania State University will start the spring semester online because of "extensive analysis and scenario planning given worsening virus conditions nationally and across the state indicating predictions of rising hospitalization rates in the coming weeks," the university announced Friday.

What they're saying: "It's been every campus trying the best they can to come up with their own regimen and their own system, and it's been hugely inefficient but also it's just prevented a lot of campuses that could’ve opened from opening," said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • Parties, Greek life and sports remain a challenge, but so far, the colleges that have made on-campus life work have been able to create a culture of responsibility, he said.

The bottom line: Most colleges students will not be eligible for the vaccine during spring semester, and will need serious testing efforts and social discipline to keep outbreaks from occurring.

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