Sat, 24 Oct 2020

US Colleges Struggle to Salvage Semester Amid Outbreaks

Voice of America
27 Sep 2020, 16:05 GMT+10

MADISON, WISCONSIN - Colleges across the country are struggling to salvage the fall semester amid skyrocketing coronavirus cases, dorm complexes and frat houses under quarantine, and flaring tensions with local community leaders over the spread of the disease.

Many major universities are determined to forge ahead despite warning signs, as evidenced by the expanding slate of college football games occurring Saturday. The football-obsessed Southeastern Conference began its season with fans in stadiums. Several teams in other leagues have had to postpone games because of outbreaks among players and staff.

Institutions across the nation saw spikes of thousands of cases days after opening their doors in the last month, driven by students socializing with little or no social distancing. School and community leaders have tried to rein in the virus by closing bars, suspending students, adding mask requirements, and toggling between in-person and online instruction as case numbers rise and fall.

Tension over the outbreaks is starting to boil over in college towns.

In Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, this week blamed outbreaks at two colleges for a surge of virus cases that boosted the state's infection rate high enough to put it on the list of places whose residents are required to quarantine when traveling to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, alarmed by what he saw as draconian rules on college campuses, said he was drawing up a "bill of rights" for college students.

No confidence

Faculty members from at least two universities have held no-confidence votes in recent weeks against their top leaders, in part over reopening decisions.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison had seen more than 2,800 confirmed cases in students as of Friday. The school shut down in-person instruction for two weeks, locked down two of its largest dorms, and imposed quarantines on more than a dozen sorority and fraternity houses. The school lifted the dorm lockdown just this week.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has demanded the university send all of its students home for the rest of the academic year.

"[The virus] was under control until the university came back," Parisi said.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank has fired back, saying tens of thousands of students with off-campus housing would still come to the city. She accused Parisi of failing to enforce capacity restrictions in bars and off-campus parties.

"You can't simply wish [students] away, nor should you," Blank said in a statement directed at Parisi.

Amid the fighting, thousands of students around the country have been quarantined in dorm rooms.

At Kansas State University, more than 2,200 students have been placed in quarantine or isolation since classes began. Student Emily Howard was isolated in what students have dubbed "COVID jail" after she and her dorm roommate tested positive for the virus on September 4, just three weeks after arriving on campus.

"Now you walk around campus [and] pretty much everyone says they've had it," Howard said. "Now we don't really care as much because we know we had the antibodies."

'Pretty much stuck'

Bryan Fisher, a UW-Madison freshman quarantined in the dorms, said students were allowed to leave only to get food from the dining hall, and they were given only 30 minutes to make each trip. He said he spent his time studying and watching movies.

"We were pretty much stuck in here," Fisher said. "It's been pretty hard to meet new people. Everyone's expectations of college aren't what they were."

The University of Connecticut on Friday placed a third dormitory under medical quarantine. More than 150 students have tested positive.

The University of Missouri has had more than 1,500 confirmed cases among students since classes began. The school planned to limit the crowd at Saturday's home football opener against Alabama to no more than 11,700 fans, leaving the stands about 80% empty.

Florida State University on Friday decided to require that students test negative for the virus a week before a football game before being allowed to attend and that they must wear masks in the stands. Seminoles coach Mike Norvell tested positive for the virus last week.

Despite the attempts at mitigation, student cases have sent local county infection numbers soaring. Schools' decisions to push on with the semester have frustrated some faculty and local community leaders.

Faculty members at Appalachian State University in August approved a no-confidence vote against Chancellor Sheri Everts over university finances, morale and reopening plans. Everts has said she received support from the school's Board of Trustees.

The University of Michigan faculty took a no-confidence vote against President Mark Schlissel earlier this month. Faculty felt Schlissel's administration hasn't been transparent about reopening decisions and hasn't released any modeling gauging the health risks. Graduate students went on strike September 8 to protest reopening. Schlissel has acknowledged that trust in his leadership had slipped, but the university's governing board expressed support for him this week.

'Immense pressure to remain open'

"Colleges and universities are ... under immense pressure to remain open," said Chris Mariscano, director of the College Crisis Initiative, a research project at Davidson College tracking the effects of the virus on higher education. "When the president of the United States starts tweeting [about staying open], you understand just how much politics is playing a role here and institutional survival is playing a role here."

University officials across the country say they hope to bolster testing and contact tracing as the semester continues. But Mariscano said universities should expect college students to act like college students.

At Kansas State, Howard was not especially concerned about the virus and didn't mind the "COVID jail," where students got free laundry service and their own bedrooms.

"I personally am not too worried about it, and everyone I have talked to is not that worried about it," she said. "I think it is more like, you are going to get it. It's just a matter of when."

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