Depicted: A thermometer. Photo Credit: Markus Spiske.

The COVID-19 outbreak this year forced universities into rethinking how to safely operate. Some schools converted completely to online classes, while other universities created complicated plans for returning to campus--involving social distancing policies, contact tracing, mass testing, and quarantine protocols.

But in recent weeks, as fall semesters begin, universities are finding that their plans are about as effective as a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

Universities That Reopened Campus Are Changing Their Minds

Some universities are finding how deeply misplaced their overconfidence was.

On May 26, 2020, University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins wrote a New York Times op-ed titled "We’re Reopening Notre Dame. It’s Worth the Risk." Father Jenkins' piece argued that the University of Notre Dame should reopen its campus out of "courage" and that "science can inform our deliberations, but it cannot provide the answer."

The semester started on August 10th, and just eight days later, the coronavirus outbreak was bad enough for Father Jenkins to replace in-person classes with online classes. By the time they made the decision, 147 people at Notre Dame tested positive for COVID-19--and that number is still growing.

In the press release announcing the change, Father Jenkins blamed the spread of COVID-19 on students attending off-campus gatherings--even though Father Jenkins himself was photographed violating campus social distancing guidelines before the semester began. After all this, the Notre Dame student newspaper's editorial board eviscerated the Notre Dame administration with an op-ed titled "Don’t make us write obituaries."

Similarly, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill invited a percentage of their students to on-campus residence and classes, only for coronavirus cases to immediately spike. From August 10th to 16th, the COVID-19 positive rate at UNC Campus Health jumped from 2.8% to 13.6%. In response, UNC moved all on-campus instruction to be fully-online.

The same story has been playing out around the United States. At least Drexel, Penn, Pitt, Princeton, La Salle University, Michigan State University, and North Carolina State University have also suddenly pivoted to online-only instruction in recent weeks--even if only temporarily.

Being Quarantined Can Be a Nightmare

Even the most careful student on campus can still get infected, or they can be quarantined by contact tracers because they were near an infected person.

At Colorado College, one student tested positive on their first day on-campus, causing an entire dormitory building containing 155 students into quarantine for two weeks. Some of the dorm's students left campus, but the remainder were confined to their individual dorm rooms under the following rules:

  • They can only leave to refill a water bottle or use their dorm's shared bathroom--while wearing a mask.
  • They can only spend 20 minutes per day outside of the building, and only to stand in a spray-painted area of lawn.
  • They receive food deliveries once per day from a worker wearing PPE.

Not only are the students presumably paying to suffer through this, but Colorado College blithely blames them for not following "enhanced social distancing protocols."

Students and student groups have already been quarantined at East Carolina University, Oklahoma State University, Iowa State University, the University of Alabama, the University of Miami, and the University of Kentucky. At Northeast Mississippi Community College, nearly ten percent of the student body--around 300 students--are in quarantine. The New York Times recently covered the terrible food being given to students in quarantine at New York University.

Universities Are Getting Help From Some Shady Business Partners

Universities that had developed complicated return-to-campus plans had very little time and resources to implement them. A handful of them reached out to some questionable companies.

At Albion College in Michigan, students are being forced to download a little-known contact-tracing mobile app with multiple discovered security issues. Albion has also banned students from leaving campus without permission during the semester, and uses the contact-tracing app to enforce the ban. If the app tracks a student leaving campus, their student ID card's access to campus buildings is revoked.

In Virginia, three universities have deployed widespread COVID-19 testing, but faculty have raised concerns because the tests were purchased from Kallaco--a relatively-unknown five-month-old software company. Even worse, a handful of the tests may have been inaccurate. The universities passed over trusted medical diagnostics companies like LabCorp and Quest because only Kallaco promised to meet deadlines imposed by the universities' athletic and academic calendar. Yet, Kallaco ended up causing numerous delays anyway.

So, What Should Students Do?

Take a gap year. Or drop out. Or just only take online classes.

But not everybody has those options. Many students are tied to their on-campus enrollment via financial aid, on-campus jobs, university rules, or just because they don't have anywhere else to go.

But if a university is intent on bringing students to campus, they cannot back their claims of safety. Students living on-campus might end up evicted from their dorm room or quarantined inside of it--to say nothing of the risk of actually getting sick.