Student-athletes ride through the University of North Carolina campus at Chapel Hill on August 18, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Melissa Sue Gerrits | Getty Images
It was a beautiful Monday on the Polk Place Quad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as Olivia Amos had dinner with her roommates, enjoying the newfound freedom college life offers students when they return in the fall .
Then the group received a collective buzz from their cell phones.
in the In that August 17 email, UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz informed students that the coronavirus was piercing campus and realized that the escalating cases were creating an "unsustainable situation". From that point on, all freshmen would go online and Amos and her friends would have to leave their campus accommodation ASAP.
"I think we were kind of in shock," said Amos, a 19-year-old sophomore studying communications. "We all just said: 'What's going on?'"
Universities reopening across the country are struggling to contain the rise in Covid-19 infections, spoiling carefully designed plans to get students back to the classroom safely. School officials have urged students to maintain social distancing practices as health officials attribute groups of cases to off-campus gatherings. Infectious disease experts say the situation is not surprising.
The problematic reopenings have led other universities to cancel their plans for in-person tuition prior to the arrival of students.
"A formidable enemy"
The University of North Carolina canceled face-to-face classes a week ago after more than 135 students who tested positive for Covid-19 and 349 were in quarantine. When the announcement was made, according to the university's data dashboard, there were only four rooms left for students to be quarantined. Around 470 new cases were only confirmed in the last week.
The culprits: off-campus gatherings, said Peter Hans, system president of the University of North Carolina.
The situation is similar at the University of Notre Dame, which suspended personal classes for two weeks on August 18 when there were a total of 255 cases on campus. According to the university, there are currently at least 448 Covid-19 cases on campus by Sunday. School officials have identified off-campus parties as culprits.
"The virus is a formidable enemy," President Rev. John Jenkins said during the announcement. "It won last week."
Officials from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Syracuse University, and Penn State University have issued similar warnings to students who have gathered on campus and off campus. The University of Connecticut kicked some residents out of their dormitories after holding an unsanctioned meeting. They said they did not adhere to social distancing guidelines.
"It takes few to ruin it for the many, as we have seen at other universities across the country," warned Eric Barron, Penn State President, Thursday.
Other institutions such as Michigan State University and Ithaca College in New York, saw what happened at colleges in the usa last week and canceled their plans to bring the students back to campus in the fall.
"We are shocked"
Kyle Garcia, a 17-year-old freshman to Notre Dame and an aspiring aerospace engineering major, could face the same dilemma as Amos in the coming days.
Garcia missed a traditional high school graduation in San Diego and earlier this year had to cancel his plans for a summer Bible school because of the outbreak. There is now a threat of an upswing in his first semester as a student as Notre Dame is considering sending the students home just two weeks after they move in.
"The general consensus is that we are shocked. This was not expected at all, this was not foreseen," said Garcia of the university campus, where students are strictly banned after jumping into Covid-19 cases last week.
Garcia, who flew to university in South Bend, Indiana and has often searched for dormitory supplies in nearby stores, is now preparing his possible return home. If the coronavirus is widespread, Garcia said he was concerned about the threat students would pose if asked to go home.
"I think people are very surprised at how quickly this manifests itself," he said. "It really was a weekend of parties and we have 300 cases."
Amos said she was considering finding an off-campus apartment when she and her friends begin moving out at UNC. One of them is rushing to make move-out plans with her parents in Maryland, while another is worried about returning home with her elderly parents.
"I knew there was a great possibility for us to move out sometime this semester, so I tried to pack as lightly as possible," she said. "I just didn't expect to move out this early."
Unfortunately, infectious disease experts say the situation is not surprising.
"Part of the college experience is the social experience. I mean, it's not just about education," said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine who specializes in infectious diseases.
Del Rio warned the nation could not effectively suppress Covid-19. Although universities have put testing, contact tracing, social distancing and uniform masks at the center of their reopening plans, the virus is still spreading in local communities, where many students live off campus.
"There is just too much virus in the community," said del Rio. "If we had the epidemic under better control, we would probably be in a completely different position."
Even states like New York, which have been able to effectively control the transmission of Covid-19 for months, are facing school officials with uncertainties about reopening universities, said Ravina Kullar, an additional faculty member at the University of California at Los Angeles and a member of the Infectious Disease Society of America.
That's because many students from different states are arriving with worse outbreaks and universities are "creating a breeding ground for a Covid catastrophe," she said.
"Everything can shift"
"I think it's one thing to say that this city or state is well prepared, but then everything can change when the colleges open," Kullar said.
Dr. Howard Koh, Professor at Harvard T.H. The Chan School of Public Health and the former Deputy Secretary of Health for the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration criticized the lack of national uniformity in Covid-19 tests.
Koh mentioned a recent study by Yale University and published in JAMA that found that colleges must test students every other day to safely reopen, despite the study saying the effects of contact tracing and testing on the Faculty are excluded.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines suggest universities test people with Covid-19 symptoms or asymptomatic people who have come into contact with another case. However, as the nation ventures deeper into the year, the flu season poses an additional threat to universities as it will be difficult for clinicians and students to differentiate between symptoms, Koh said.
"We have a fast, unprecedented pandemic, very little data and no national guidelines," he said. "So every university and college has to do this on its own and find the best strategy for them."