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College campuses face explosion of COVID-19 cases — and challenges to get students to follow safety protocols

The University of Alabama reported more than 550 people tested positive for the coronavirus since classes began one week ago.
People make their way along "The Strip," an area of bars and restaurants near the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday.
People make their way along "The Strip," an area of bars and restaurants near the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. Vasha Hunt / AP

The exploding number of new COVID-19 cases on campuses across the country has left many colleges and universities grappling with the same vexing question: How do you get students to cooperate with new safety measures?

While many students appear to be following social distancing guidelines, all too many are breaking the rules and putting their classmates at greater risk.

The University of Alabama reported more than 550 people — the majority of them students — tested positive for the coronavirus since classes began one week ago.

Montclair State University in New Jersey, this week barred 11 students from student housing for two weeks after they were caught partying in the residence halls and at an off-campus bash.

“The vast majority of students are following the rules,” said Andrew Mees, a spokesman for the university. “We are disappointed that a small number chose to disregard these rules and by so doing, to create risk for our campus community.”

Other major universities like Notre Dame, the University of Connecticut, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have all faced outbreaks.

Fraternities and sororities have been identified as the hottest of hot spots, with dozens of students catching the bug and school officials scrambling to shut down their houses and quarantine those infected to keep it from spreading further.

Brian Higgins, an expert on crowd management security at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said the problem for universities is two-fold: The students don’t take the COVID-19 threat seriously and the enforcement measures universities are taking don’t have much bite.

Image: Colorado University Students Return To Campus For Fall Semester
A group of incoming freshmen walk through campus at the University of Colorado Boulder on Aug. 18, 2020.Mark Makela / Getty Images

“What they’re doing now is clearly not working,” said Higgins, who previously was chief of police in Bergen County, New Jersey. “In addition to stricter guidelines, I think they need tougher penalties to get the students’ attention. Like, give them a ticket for violating the rules and if they don’t pay they don’t get their grades or they can’t matriculate.”

College students, like the rest of the country, have been feeding on conflicting reports about the severity of the pandemic, Higgins added.

“The problem is college kids don’t take it seriously, they don’t think they’ll get it and if they do it won’t be so bad,” Higgins said.

The pandemic has added to the “incredible amount of complexity that college students have to manage, especially undergraduates living on their own, away from family for the first time,” said Northwestern University psychologist and family therapist Alexandra Solomon.

In many young people, the impulse-control part of the brain isn’t fully developed until around age 25, making students far more susceptible to “risky behavior” and peer pressure, Solomon said.

Additionally, Solomon said, many of the students enter college with “no first-hand experience with people being sick and dying."

“So to them all of this is very abstract,” she said.

To get students to cooperate and follow the safety protocols, universities need to come up with “a blend of carrots and sticks,” Solomon said.

“Yes, there need to be consequences,” Solomon said, but colleges also need to get students to understand that their behavior can affect the health of their friends.

To stem the coronavirus tide, many of the 5,000 or so colleges and universities in the U.S. are limiting the number of students allowed in dorms and classrooms, requiring testing or proof of a recent test for all arriving students, insisting on mask-wearing in all public areas, and canceling social activities where the virus is more likely to spread.

“Two-year colleges, for instance, are much more likely than four-year colleges to be planning an online fall,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

Some schools are also insisting the students sign codes of conduct. But those are just words on a page to many students who have been getting around the restrictions by partying off-campus and at local watering holes, according to numerous published reports.

The situation is so dire in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the University of Alabama, that the city’s mayor shut down bars and bar service in restaurants for two weeks.

“The truth is, fall in Tuscaloosa is in serious jeopardy,” Mayor Walt Maddox said this week.

Texas A&M University on Tuesday reported on its dashboard that 407 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since August 2.

Then there is the problem of who enforces the rules. Campus police can only do so much, so as The New York Times reported, “day-to-day policing is often falling to teaching assistants and residential advisers who have mixed feelings about confronting scofflaw undergraduates.”

The newspaper highlighted the plight of Jason Chang, a 24-year-old doctoral student at Cornell University, who oversees the undergrads in the dorm where he lives and caught a student who was supposed to be in quarantine sneaking out of her room three times.

“Constant insanity and madness,” Chang told the newspaper.

There was no focus on the spreading COVID-19 campus crisis when the virtual Republican National Convention kicked off Monday, but there was plenty of praise for President Donald Trump’s handling of a pandemic that has, as of Tuesday morning, killed more than 178,000 people in the U.S., the most in the world, according to the latest NBC News tally.

Since the pandemic started, the U.S. has recorded more than 5.7 million COVID-19 cases, also the most in the world.

U.S. deaths and cases account for a little over a fifth of the world’s more than 814,000 fatalities and about a quarter of the 23.6 million confirmed cases across the globe.

  • Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world, but he could not outrun COVID-19. An eight-time Olympic gold medalist and world record sprinter, Bolted tested positive on Saturday after celebrating his 34th birthday with a “big bash mask-free,” Reuters reported. He is now self-isolating at his home in Jamaica. “Just to be safe I quarantined myself and just taking it easy,” Bolt said in a message posted Monday that he appeared to have taped himself while lying in bed. He retired from running in 2017.

  • A marriage in Maine is off to a rocky start after 53 people who attended the Aug. 7 reception tested positive for COVID-19 and one of the guests died, the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. About 65 people attended the reception at the Big Moose Inn Cabins and Campground in the town of Millinocket, which is 15 people over the current state limit for indoor gatherings. Maine has reported 4,356 cases and coronavirus and 131 deaths since the pandemic started.

  • An 18-year-old freshman at Loyola University New Orleans named David Price has come up with a simple device that’s designed to protect Black drivers from the coronavirus pandemic and potential violent confrontations with police during traffic stops. It’s called the “Safety Pouch” and it’s essentially a fluorescent orange nylon pouch that allows drivers to place their driver’s license and registration safely outside the window. “The key benefit of the Safety Pouch is that it decreases the need to reach for information while the officer is in front of you ─ allowing your hands to be in sight and on the wheel,” Price said in a statement from the university. “Another main feature of this product is that it promotes social distancing. Using the Safety Pouch decreases hand-to-hand interaction for the driver and the officer, minimizing physical contact.” Black people have been hit especially hard by both the pandemic and by an even more persistent plague — police violence.

  • The coronavirus crisis is blowing holes in state budgets across the country. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy had to scrap the first proposed budget because of the pandemic. He unveiled his second on Tuesday, a $40.1 billion proposal that makes up for a $5.7 billion shortfall in revenues by slashing over $1 billion in spending, borrowing $4 billion more — and taxing the rich at a higher rate to make up the rest. He is also calling for raising taxes on cigarettes, guns and ammo. "The economic fallout from the pandemic is a reason to be smart about our finances — it is not an excuse to go backwards," Murphy, a Democrat, said during a special session held midfield in a stadium at Rutgers University to allow more room for social distancing. State Republicans were not pleased, especially with the idea of taking on more debt. But New Jersey is hardly the only state facing a fiscal crisis. The pandemic did so much damage to Florida's bottom line that Gov. Ron DeSantis in June had to cut a billion dollars in new spending. He likened all that chopping to the gory "Red Wedding" scene in the TV series "Games of Thrones."