The University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, is home to one of the largest college outbreaks of COVID-19 in the United States (Shutterstock/Travel_with_me).
The University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, is home to one of the largest college outbreaks of COVID-19 in the United States (Shutterstock/Travel_with_me).

Without a national coronavirus strategy, colleges face testing students and quarantining them on their own, creating havoc as schools attempt to reopen around the United States.

Classes have only just begun, and yet college campuses across the country are continuing to struggle with sudden coronavirus outbreaks on their campuses. This comes on the heels of news that the United States surpassed 6 million positive COVID-19 cases over the weekend. 

Since the beginning of August, 36 states have reported positive COVID-19 cases at their college and university campuses. In just one month, the number of infected on those campuses has reached 8,700 cases nationwide. The University of Alabama has seen the worst outbreak so far, with 1,200 students testing positive for the virus since classes began on August 19.

College campuses in the South, in particular, have seen some of the highest tallies of positive COVID-19 cases, and are serving as a cautionary warning while some colleges and universities continue to contemplate whether or not to resume in-person classes this fall. In the month of August, Texas A&M University reported over 400 positive cases for the coronavirus and the University of South Carolina has seen 374 positive cases. Baylor University—located in Waco, Texas—has reported over 318 cases since students returned to campus. 

Some universities transitioned back to online classes after seeing outbreaks emerge quickly after welcoming students back to campus. The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill was among the first colleges to find multiple clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus, prompting the university to transition back into online-only classes. According to Cardinal & Pine, the outbreaks were primarily traced back to socializing that occurred off-campus and was then brought back to the university’s residence halls.

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Some universities defended their decision to resume in-person classes by implementing health and safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus. New York University placed more than 2,600 students from abroad and from states with high rates of infection in mandatory two-week quarantines in their dormitories. Other colleges, like Syracuse University, are limiting the number of students per class, conducting COVID-19 testing on campus, requiring face masks, and other social distancing measures. 

However, there is still no national guidance on exactly what testing regimen should be required for colleges and universities to stay safely open. Some universities only test those on campus while others test more broadly. And in places that have taken precautions, snags are still arising. Students at New York University reported either missing meals or dietary requirements not being honored. And several universities are experiencing difficulty ensuring students abide by social distancing policies. In New York, more than 100 students have been suspended from their colleges for COVID-related policy violations—most of them due to illicit partying. 

The University of Alabama attributed its outbreak to students violating its 14-day ban on social gatherings with several students attending off-campus parties, and fraternity and sorority events. In response to the outbreak, the Mayor of Tuscaloosa—where the college is located—ordered all bars to shut down and suspended bar service at restaurants for two weeks.

“The expected rules and behaviors of all students and student organizations have been clearly defined,” University of Alabama President Stuart Bell said in a statement. “While we are appreciative [of] those who have taken these expectations seriously, I am deeply disappointed that those guidelines are not being followed by each and every member of our student body.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo deployed an emergency response team of 71 contact tracers and eight investigators to the State University of New York in Oneonta (SUNY Oneonta) in response to more than 100 students testing positive for the virus after a weekend of partying. The upstate New York university—now closed one week after classes began —suspended five students and three campus organizations for violating the school’s social distancing policies. 

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“Colleges are the canary in the coal mine, and a 3% infection rate is high in a congregate situation, similar to a dense urban environment where you have people taking public transportation,” Cuomo said in a statement. “That’s why we’re deploying state resources to contain the new COVID cluster at SUNY Oneonta.”

Instead of sending sick and exposed students back home, though, some public health experts are recommending colleges and universities keep them on campus. According to the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), sending students back makes contract tracing ineffective, and risks exposing and infecting people back in their hometowns.

“There’s just inevitably going to be an outbreak,” Ravina Kullar, spokesperson for the IDSA. told Bloomberg News. “Colleges need to take on the burden of having these students kept at their campus and taking care of them.”

Contact tracing has been proven to be instrumental in monitoring and containing coronavirus outbreaks. However, with students concerned about suspensions and other repercussions for violating COVID-19 safety guidelines, it has been harder for institutions to obtain honest and truthful answers to their contact tracing questions.

“The more contacts a person has, the harder contact tracing can be,” Amesh Adalja, a scholar from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told Bloomberg News. “People may not even know who they’re in contact with, especially if they are drinking.”