The Ups and Downs of A Fall Semester During Coronavirus

Mary Dooe
Mar 17, 2021

Autumn is nearly upon us, but many students across the United States are already back on campus, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is quickly rearing its head. Before students have had much time to begin worrying about their loud roommate who stays up all night, some might soon be packing up to return home.    Throughout this pandemic, colleges and universities have been hit hard: A survey of more than 1,500 American institutions, including every four-year public institution, revealed at least 26,000 cases and 64 deaths since the pandemic began. All the while university campuses have been empty for most of the summer, the return of classes — and, yes, partying — poses a major concern regarding the transmission of the coronavirus between unsuspecting students.  

Early fall outbreaks

Those universities that are continuing with in-person classes (at least for now) face a core problem: how do you maintain the social distancing and cleanliness guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified as essential for halting the transmission of COVID-19?  

Notre Dame

A number of institutions have already seen initial outbreaks as students returned to campus. At the University of Notre Dame, August saw 100 positive cases of the virus among its student body.   University leadership there has attributed much of the spread to off-campus gatherings where health precautions such as mask-wearing were not taken.   In the wake of the positive tests, Notre Dame announced in mid-August that in-person classes would be suspended until at least September 2nd, in the hopes that going online would help stem the spread.   The news of the spread is even more shocking given the steps Notre Dame has taken to prevent the spread. Ahead of the school year, nearly 12,000 tests were administered and there was just a positivity rate of 0.28 percent among students and employees of the university. That all changed when the students returned to campus.   In the wake of the outbreak, the university has also instituted quarantine programs - and there are reports they've hired additional security to ensure students comply.   University of North Carolina UNC has been at the top of many national headlines in the past week, as it is has become an early fall hotbed of coronavirus outbreaks.   As of this week, the school has reported that around a third of students have tested positive for COVID - and that number could be even higher. The majority of the cases were reported after the first day of in-person classes. There are now over a dozen clusters of outbreaks at the school - defined as a group of 5 or more cases by North Carolina health officials.   Local authorities have begun issuing citations to students partying in unsafe ways off-campus. And the school is seen as an example of how badly things could go this fall if student and administration behavior doesn't adapt.   Greek life Some universities are threatening to discipline — and even suspend — undergraduates whose partying activities can be traced to COVID-19 outbreaks on their campuses.   According to the New York Times, roughly 251 recent cases of COVID-19 have been linked to fraternities and sororities across the country; at Oklahoma State University, an entire sorority is in quarantine after 23 of its members tested positive.   The fraternities and sorority outbreaks are the proverbial canary in a coal mine for what the crush of students returning to campus this fall holds for administrators.    Student perspective Critics say some of the issue falls on the shoulders of the administration at schools like this, and that there needs to be clearer messaging around proper protocols.   Student journalists across the country have been at the frontlines of reporting outbreaks and issuing editorials about whether it is safe to be back on campus. The University of Kansas newspaper editorial board, for example, said that university runs the risk of a similar situation to UNC if changes aren't made to the fall plan.   female college student taking notes while listening to online lecture during coronavirus pandemic  

Other precautions and online learning

Some colleges might still not change course - at least not yet - and will continue to try to have students on campus for the semester.  As a result of the pandemic, this year’s college and university orientation proceedings will likely be understated affairs  — or, in the cases of some institutions, virtual ones.   According to a running tally of some 3,000 institutions maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education, roughly 27 percent of American institutions of higher education plan on holding classes “primarily” online this fall, with another 6 percent going “fully” online to avoid subjecting their students to crowded classes and boisterous dorms.   Comparatively, only 20 percent of colleges and universities say they’ll pursue “primarily” in-person activities, with another 2.5 percent saying they’ll “fully” embrace in-person learning amid the pandemic. Another 15 percent say they’ll pursue a hybrid of the two. As students to faculty navigate the confusing new world of distance learning, administrators are too — and facing some tough choices in the process.