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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."

Go deeper

Nov 29, 2020 - Health

New York City to reopen public schools with weekly testing

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York on Nov. 28. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

Some New York City schools will be allowed to reopen for in-person learning as early as Dec. 7, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Sunday.

The state of play: De Blasio said schools will no longer be forced to shutter when the city hits a 3% COVID-19 test positivity rate, but he did not specify what the new threshold will be. The school district will mandate weekly tests for 20% of children in each school, and students will not be tested before they return.

Updated 2 hours ago - Energy & Environment

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm lashed much of the East Coast Sunday and Monday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: Authorities in North Carolina confirmed that two people died in a car crash and that they responded 600 vehicle accidents during the storm on Sunday, per the Washington Post.

4 hours ago - Health

CDC director says COVID-19 messaging should have been clearer

Rochelle Walensky. Photo: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the messaging around the COVID-19 pandemic and changing guidance should have been clearer.

State of play: Walensky is being coached by media experts and is planning to have more press briefings by herself in order to ensure that CDC is seen as an independent, scientific entity, rather than as a political one, the Journal reports.