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Colleges and Universities: The New COVID Hot Spots

photo of coronavirus college sign

Sept. 17, 2020 -- Of nearly 3,000 colleges and universities being tracked by The College Crisis Initiative, just over one-quarter are having most classes in person. And yet, once schools began to reopen in even a limited fashion, numerous COVID-19 outbreaks followed. More than 61,000 positive cases have been discovered on campuses since late August.

It’s not like schools didn’t plan for COVID. Some created computer models they believed would predict the spread. The University of Illinois invested over $6 million on an aggressive initiative that included twice-weekly rapid testing for students and faculty and compulsory masks. But after just 2 weeks of classes, the school found more than 700 cases on campus. In response, for the next 2 weeks, the administration restricted undergraduate students to their residences except for essential activities.

Illinois is far from alone in being forced to change gears. College towns account for 19 of the top 25 hot spots in the U.S. Each school is adjusting in its own way:

  • At Michigan State University in Lansing, students were asked to self-quarantine after parties led to what Ingham County Health Officer Linda S. Vail called an “exponential growth” of cases in the county.
  • In late August, North Carolina State University in Raleigh moved all classes online and, less than a week later, it closed all dorms after finding 24 clusters of cases.
  • After testing uncovered more than 2,200 positive cases since August, the University of Wisconsin-Madison suspended in-person classes. More than half of fraternity and sorority houses are under quarantine, as are over one-third of students living in dorms.

“They missed what was right in front of their eyes: College-age students do a lot of risky, reckless things,” says Laurence Steinberg, PhD, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia and one of the world's leading experts on adolescence. “Going to parties, frat houses, bars -- it’s not like they weren’t doing this before. The question was, why would you think they’d stop doing it?”

Research shows that the college years are when people are most likely to engage in risky behavior. That could explain why some students have behaved in a way models didn’t predict -- they’ve continued to socialize despite clear warnings and restrictions. Northeastern University in Boston dismissed 11 students who had gathered in one room. Videos posted online showed students at the University of Kansas and Florida State flouting social distancing guidelines at large off-campus parties.

And then there are the students who continued to party after testing positive. That’s what happened at the University of Illinois. “We modeled that they were going to go to parties and that they probably weren’t going to wear masks, and it would lead to some level of transmission,” Martin Burke, a chemist at the school who helped develop the rapid test, told Nature. “What we didn’t model for is that people would choose to go to a party if they knew that they were positive.”

Similarly, at Miami University in Ohio, a police officer’s bodycam video showed that students held an off-campus party at a house where several residents had the virus.

This behavior doesn’t surprise Steinberg. In late adolescence, changes in the brain make people care tremendously about social relationships, he says. “One reason people go to college is the social aspect,” he says. “Imagine having to go to the dining hall, pick up some soggy, sorry sandwich, and bring it back to your room to eat all by yourself. This isn’t what college is supposed to be.”

So while some school administrators blame the students, experts like Steinberg say those schools have unreasonable expectations. “If you’re a parent and you don’t put caps on your electrical outlets and your baby sticks her finger in the socket, is it the baby’s fault or is it yours?” he says. “Other than going remote, there wasn’t much university administrators could’ve done to deter unsafe behavior for more than a couple of weeks. The fact that some kids aren’t deterred could’ve been predicted.”

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on September 17, 2020

Sources

The New York Times: “Tracking Covid at U.S. Colleges and Universities.”

Time: “College Professors Made Models Showing How Bad COVID-19 Would Be on Campus. Some Administrators Ignored Them.”

ABC News: “Colleges forced to reckon with rising COVID-19 cases.”

NPR: “Despite Mass Testing, University Of Illinois Sees Coronavirus Cases Rise.”

University of Illinois: “Increased Undergraduate Enforcement of COVID-19 Safety Guidelines.”

USA Today: “'Astonishingly risky': COVID-19 cases at colleges are fueling the nation's hottest outbreaks.”

CNN: “Michigan State University students asked to self-quarantine after Covid-19 outbreak.”

News & Observer: “NC State University will close campus dorms, calling COVID situation ‘untenable.’”

Wisconsin State Journal: “UW-Madison threatens 'more drastic action' as experts say COVID-19 outbreak impacting broader community.”

Laurence Steinberg, PhD, distinguished university professor and Laura H. Carnell professor of psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia.

Brain and Cognition: “Examining the link between adolescent brain development and risk taking from a social-developmental perspective.”

The Washington Post: “A group of students knew they had covid-19. They hosted a party over Labor Day anyway.”

NBC News: “Partying seen at Florida State, University of Kansas as college football resumes.”

Nature: “‘We didn’t model that people would go to a party if they tested positive.’”

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