Universities grapple with rising COVID-19 cases

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Can universities make effective and fast adjustments as Covid-19 infections spike at institutions across the country?

Just weeks in for back-to-school commencement, and already many universities are experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases. In some instances, it’s a matter of money, while for others, it’s the unwillingness or inability for students, staff and faculty to remain socially distant. 

Initially, the University of North Carolina started with in-person instruction, they quickly were forced to make adjustments by shifting to remote learning. The decision comes after the university system experienced at least four clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks since the Chapel Hill campus started courses in person.

Shortly after school started, the UNC Tar Heels tweeted

We are still expecting to play this fall, and we will continue to evaluate the situation in coordination with the university, the ACC, state and local officials, and health officials. The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff, and community remain our priority. 

Added to the change in operations, the UNC system temporarily suspended all athletics. “Pretty much the worst thing you could do in a respiratory viral pandemic is travel and engage in close contact like a contact sport.,” said Yale University’s Dr. Sten Vermund, infectious disease specialist during an interview with Sports Pulse.

But the health of the team might not be driving the decision as Dr. Vermund added. “Now how objective are the Athletic Directors and the College Presidents at this time when they’re faced with the loss of millions and millions of dollars of revenue, I would worry about that.”

. . . .

Other universities in the country are faced with making decisions in their operations in a matter of days due to the rising health challenges of the campus. The St-Louis based HBCU, Harris-Stowe State University, tests the waters as well. STL Today reported that the university shut down its campus after eight administrative employees tested positive for COVID-19. 

Following the report of infections, Harris-Stowe went through a deep cleaning and is now offering in-person and online courses. As for the student-athletes, the American Midwest Conference, Council of Presidents voted that student-athletes move forward with fall sports as scheduled. This includes regular-season conference and non-conference play, and the conference postseason championships. 

At Rutgers University, their football student athletes had an outbreak as well. After an investigation, it was later linked to an on-campus party according to ESPN. Currently, there are currently no games scheduled for the remainder of the year. According to officials, Rutgers will offer an update in the coming weeks to reflect the Spring 2021 schedule. 

“If we aren’t mindful of this now, it will be so much more difficult to come back, it will take that much longer . . . so this is about taking a painful dose of medication metaphorically speaking right now so that we could get back up to speed as fast as possible,” said Rutgers’ president, Jonathan Holloway shared a message on twitter. 

. . . .

On-campus parties and participating in athletics aren’t the only issues contributing to the spike in cases. Living on campus has become a petri dish for the virus as well. WSB-TV Atlanta reported that just this past weekend, Georgia Tech had 641 confirmed cases, stemming from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house. 

What’s more, over 1,000 students have tested positive for COVID-19 at the University of Alabama since classes resumed on its Tuscaloosa campus. However, no students have been hospitalized according to a University of Alabama System news release. The solution offered was to shut down bars and clubs in the town.

“We’re beginning to see a growing number of young healthy adults who get infected with this virus that go on and develop what we call the long-haulers condition, where we’re now seeing individuals who are not hospitalized but three, four and five months later are literally not able to go back to school, go to work, live a normal life. This is a real challenge,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, during an interview with MSNBC

As stated by the CDC, events in which students are not spaced apart and mixed between classes and activities are of the highest risk for contracting COVID-19. With the last wave of schools opening in the US after labor day, teachers worry that the infection rates will increase. 

At New York University, the only major institution opening in the area, contract faculty circulated a letter to its administration to address concerns about the safety of their work. In the letter they state:

Contingent and student workers have been disproportionately burdened by the NYU administration’s choices, and plans for Fall 2020 reproduce this inequity. High-level administrators and tenured faculty have been allowed to work remotely, while contingent faculty and workers must weigh health concerns against job security. This approach will compound existing inequalities, and will not keep us safe. We must make different choices.

Nonetheless, NYU moved forward with some in-person classes at its main New York campus and several of its global sites. To mitigate infections, students living on campus agreed to a 14-day quarantine in their living quarters. Most of the quarantines end this week. Additionally, NYU implemented hybrid, online and blended courses. Time will tell if the template works or not.

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