College campuses face explosion of COVID-19 cases — and challenges to get students to follow safety protocols

 The exploding number of new COVID-19 cases on campuses across the country has left many colleges and universities grapple with the same vexing question: How do you get students to cooperate with new safety measures?

While many students appear to be following social distancing guidelines, all too many are breaking the rules and putting their classmates at greater risk.

The University of Alabama reported more than 550 people — the majority of the students — tested positive for the coronavirus since classes began one week ago.

Montclair State University in New Jersey, this week barred 11 students from student housing for two weeks after they were caught partying in the residence halls and at an off-campus bash.

“The vast majority of students are following the rules,” said Andrew Mees, a spokesman for the university. “We are disappointed that a small number chose to disregard these rules and by so doing, to create risk for our campus community.”

Other major universities like Notre Dame, the University of Connecticut, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have all faced outbreaks.

Fraternities and sororities have been identified as the hottest of hot spots, with dozens of students catching the bug and school officials scrambling to shut down their houses and quarantine those infected to keep it from spreading further.

Brian Higgins, an expert on crowd management security at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the problem for universities is two-fold: The students don’t take the COVID-19 threat seriously and the enforcement measures universities are taking don’t have much bite.

Image: Colorado University Students Return To Campus For Fall Semester
A group of incoming freshmen walk through campus at the University of Colorado Boulder on Aug. 18, 2020.Mark Makela / Getty Images

“What they’re doing now is clearly not working,” said Higgins, who previously was chief of police in Bergen County, New Jersey. “In addition to stricter guidelines, I think they need tougher penalties to get the students’ attention. Like, give them a ticket for violating the rules and if they don’t pay they don’t get their grades or they can’t matriculate.”

College students, like the rest of the country, have been feeding on conflicting reports about the severity of the pandemic, Higgins added.

“The problem is college kids don’t take it seriously, they don’t think they’ll get it and if they do it won’t be so bad,” Higgins said.

The pandemic has added to the “incredible amount of complexity that college students have to manage, especially undergraduates living on their own, away from family for the first time,” said Northwestern University psychologist and family therapist Alexandra Solomon.

In many young people, the impulse-control part of the brain isn’t fully developed until around age 25, making students far more susceptible to “risky behavior” and peer pressure, Solomon said.

Additionally, Solomon said, many of the students enter college with “no first-hand experience with people being sick and dying."

“So to them all of this is very abstract,” she said.

To get students to cooperate and follow the safety protocols, universities need to come up with “a blend of carrots and sticks,” Solomon said.

“Yes, there need to be consequences,” Solomon said, but colleges also need to get students to understand that their behavior can affect the health of their friends.

To stem the coronavirus tide, many of the 5,000 or so colleges and universities in the U.S. are limiting the number of students allowed in dorms and classrooms, requiring testing or proof of a recent test for all arriving students, insisting on mask-wearing in all public areas, and canceling social activities where the virus is more likely to spread.

“Two-year colleges, for instance, are much more likely than four-year colleges to be planning an online fall,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

Some schools are also insisting on the student's sign codes of conduct. But those are just words on a page to many students who have been getting around the restrictions by partying off-campus and at local watering holes, according to numerous published reports.

The situation is so dire in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the University of Alabama, that the city’s mayor shut down bars and bar service in restaurants for two weeks.

“The truth is, fall in Tuscaloosa is in serious jeopardy,” Mayor Walt Maddox said this week.

Texas A&M University on Tuesday reported on its dashboard that 407 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since August 2.

Then there is the problem of who enforces the rules. Campus police can only do so much, so as The New York Times reported, “day-to-day policing is often falling to teaching assistants and residential advisers who have mixed feelings about confronting scofflaw undergraduates.”

The newspaper highlighted the plight of Jason Chang, a 24-year-old doctoral student at Cornell University, who oversees the undergrads in the dorm where he lives and caught a student who was supposed to be in quarantine sneaking out of her room three times.

“Constant insanity and madness,” Chang told the newspaper.

There was no focus on the spreading COVID-19 campus crisis when the virtual Republican National Convention kicked off Monday, but there was plenty of praise for President Donald Trump’s handling of a pandemic that has, as of Tuesday morning, killed more than 178,000 people in the U.S., the most in the world, according to the latest NBC News tally.

Since the pandemic started, the U.S. has recorded more than 5.7 million COVID-19 cases, also the most in the world.

U.S. deaths and cases account for a little over a fifth of the world’s more than 814,000 fatalities and about a quarter of the 23.6 million confirmed cases across the globe.

  • Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world, but he could not outrun COVID-19. An eight-time Olympic gold medalist and world record sprinter, Bolted tested positive on Saturday after celebrating his 34th birthday with a “big bash mask-free,” Reuters reported. He is now self-isolating at his home in Jamaica. “Just to be safe I quarantined myself and just taking it easy,” Bolt said in a message posted Monday that he appeared to have taped himself while lying in bed. He retired from running in 2017.

  • Marriage in Maine is off to a rocky start after 53 people who attended the Aug. 7 reception tested positive for COVID-19 and one of the guests died, the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. About 65 people attended the reception at the Big Moose Inn Cabins and Campground in the town of Millinocket, which is 15 people over the current state limit for indoor gatherings. Maine has reported 4,356 cases and coronavirus and 131 deaths since the pandemic started.

  • An 18-year-old freshman at Loyola University New Orleans named David Price has come up with a simple device that’s designed to protect Black drivers from the coronavirus pandemic and potentially violent confrontations with police during traffic stops. It’s called the “Safety Pouch” and it’s essentially a fluorescent orange nylon pouch that allows drivers to place their driver’s license and registration safely outside the window. “The key benefit of the Safety Pouch is that it decreases the need to reach for information while the officer is in front of you ─ allowing your hands to be in sight and on the wheel,” Price said in a statement from the university. “Another main feature of this product is that it promotes social distancing. Using the Safety Pouch decreases hand-to-hand interaction for the driver and the officer, minimizing physical contact.” Black people have been hit especially hard by both the pandemic and by an even more persistent plague — police violence.

  • The coronavirus crisis is blowing holes in state budgets across the country. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy had to scrap the first proposed budget because of the pandemic. He unveiled his second on Tuesday, a $40.1 billion proposal that makes up for a $5.7 billion shortfall in revenues by slashing over $1 billion in spending, borrowing $4 billion more — and taxing the rich at a higher rate to make up the rest. He is also calling for raising taxes on cigarettes, guns, and ammo. "The economic fallout from the pandemic is a reason to be smart about our finances — it is not an excuse to go backward," Murphy, a Democrat, said during a special session held midfield in a stadium at Rutgers University to allow more room for social distancing. State Republicans were not pleased, especially with the idea of taking on more debt. But New Jersey is hardly the only state facing a fiscal crisis. The pandemic did so much damage to Florida's bottom line that Gov. Ron DeSantis in June had to cut a billion dollars in new spending. He likened all that chopping to the gory "Red Wedding" scene in the TV series "Games of Thrones."
  • The number of Americans newly diagnosed with the coronavirus is falling — development experts say most likely reflects more mask-wearing but also insufficient testing — even as the disease continues to claim nearly 1,000 lives in the U.S. each day.

    About 43,000 new cases are being reported daily across the country, down 21% from early August, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. While the U.S., India, and Brazil still have the highest numbers of new cases in the world, the downward trend is encouraging.

    “It’s profoundly hopeful news,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious-diseases expert at the University of California, San Francisco, who credits the American public’s growing understanding of how the virus spreads, more mask-wearing and, possibly, an increasing level of immunity.

    “Hopefully all those factors are coming into play to get this virus under control in this country that’s really been battered by the pandemic,” she said.

    But insufficient testing is probably concealing the full extent of the crisis, said Dr. Jonathan Quick, who leads the pandemic response for the Rockefeller Foundation, which has recommended the U.S. test 4 million people a day by fall.

    “We’re grossly under-testing in some of the places that are still having high caseloads,” Quick said, singling out Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and North Dakota as hot spots with high rates of positive test results.

    Even at 43,000 new cases per day, the U.S. remains far above the numbers seen during the spring, when new daily cases peaked at about 34,000, he said.

    “It’s a good trend, but nowhere near what we need to be,” Quick said of the recent decline.

    The virus is blamed for more than 5.7 million confirmed infections and about 178,000 deaths in the U.S. Worldwide, the death toll is put at more than 810,000, with about 23.7 million cases.

    Jeffrey Shaman, a public health expert at Columbia University, said he is skeptical enough people are immune to significantly slow the spread. But he agreed that changes in Americans’ behavior could well be making a difference, recalling the impact that people’s actions had in containing Ebola in West Africa several years ago.

    “Ebola stopped for reasons we didn’t anticipate at the time. It was so horrifying that people stopped touching each other,” Shaman said. Something similar may be happening with the coronavirus, he said.

    “I know I don’t have nearly the number of contacts that I used to,” Shaman said. “But if we relax that if we get complacent, will we just see another outbreak?”

    The decline in newly reported cases in the U.S. comes even as deaths from the virus remain alarmingly high. Officials have reported an average of 965 deaths per day from COVID-19 recently, down from 1,051 deaths a day in early August.

    Deaths from the coronavirus are a lagging indicator — they trail new infections because of the time it takes for people to get sick and succumb to the disease.

    The percentage of tests coming back positive for the disease has also declined over the past two weeks, from 7.3% to 6.1%. But that comes as the total number of tests administered has fallen from its August peak of more than 820,000 a day, leveling off in recent weeks at about 690,000 a day.

    The situation has improved dramatically in several states that struggled with high caseloads earlier this summer.

    In Arizona, for example, officials reported 859 new cases Tuesday, down from a peak of 5,500 in late June. More than 2,000 people arrived at the state’s hospitals showing symptoms of the virus on a single day in early July. This week, that number has been less than 1,000.

    In Florida, where more than 10,000 people have died, the state reported 2,600 new virus cases Tuesday. Earlier in the summer, it was regularly reporting more than 10,000 new cases.

    Malinda Coler, 37, of San Francisco, said she has been diligent about mask-wearing and other preventive measures, less to protect herself than a best friend who has a compromised immune system, with severe arthritis psoriasis.

    “So I wear a damned mask and get infuriated when others don’t,” she said.

    Most states now have some type of mask requirement, either through statewide orders issued by governors or from city and county rules that cover most of their population.

    Even some conservative governors have gone along with masks. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves mandated masks in all public places earlier this month, and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp dropped a lawsuit against Atlanta in a dispute over a requirement by the state’s largest city.

    In Leeds, Alabama, Will Heath said he has seen greater adherence to mask rules around town, whether in stores or at his 5-year-old daughter’s cheerleading practice.

    He and his wife, a nurse, have worn masks all along but said the attitude among others has shifted from “Even if I get it, I’ll be OK,” to “Let’s make sure we don’t give it to somebody else.”

    “We have all been sort of operating under the assumption that we all have it or we’re going to get it eventually. So we want to make sure we don’t spread it,” Heath said.

    Many places around the U.S. are seeing pockets of contagion, especially in college towns where students are holding parties and crowding into bars.

    Over the past week, 531 students, faculty, and staff at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa have tested positive for the virus, according to the school. Alabama said it tested nearly 30,000 students before classes began. The mayor of Tuscaloosa shut down bars for two weeks because of the spike, which could derail plans to continue the semester on campus.

    The university is still moving ahead with fall sports in the football-crazed state, with plans to allow only about 20,000 fans at its 101,000-capacity stadium and a ban on tailgating. Coach Nick Saban weighed in on the virus Monday, urging people to wear masks.

    “It’s not just about football. So, for people to make the right choices and decisions to wear their masks, do the things when they’re out publicly, respect the rules, respect the virus, that’s important,” he said.

    It’s not clear what will happen to case numbers as more school districts bring students back to classrooms and colleges reopen their campuses. In recent weeks, schools including the University of North Carolina, Michigan State and Notre Dame have moved instruction online after outbreaks on their campuses.

    Officials at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville said four students are facing disciplinary proceedings after three hosted off-campus parties with no mask or other distancing and another left isolation to meet with others despite testing positive for the virus.

    “If the facts reported to the university are accurate, these students will face at least suspension from the university, and potentially greater penalties,” Chancellor Donde Plowman wrote.

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