Coronavirus Complicates Return To College Campuses From Ole Miss To Mizzou

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Students walk on campus at the University of South Carolina on Thursday in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Students walk on campus at the University of South Carolina on Thursday in Columbia, South Carolina. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Students are returning to college campuses across the country — including in areas where the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen.

University administrators and public health officials have been experimenting with plans to keep students and faculty safe. Some students in dorms at the University of Mississippi were ordered to quarantine last week after an outbreak.

The Daily Beast quoted a freshman in one of the dorms who said when she got the news, "It was insane. Everyone at the same time, rushing out of their rooms, panicking and screaming.” Students saying they didn't know whether they should stay put inside their rooms or go home.

The university notified students about the outbreak and placed people under quarantine so they didn’t go to class, says Noel Wilkin, provost and executive vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Mississippi. Then, he says the university spoke with students individually about the best way to quarantine either at home or on campus.

“We are also looking for additional ways that we can communicate that information to them and help them to understand what their options are sooner,” he says, “so that the informal communication network of what people ought to do doesn't take over in that situation.”

Over in the Midwest, there have been nearly 700 confirmed student cases of the coronavirus at the University of Missouri’s flagship Columbia campus since in-person classes resumed on Aug. 24.

The University of Missouri's student newspaper, The Maneater, published an editorial with the headline “We Aren't Safe Here” that says it's only a matter of time until something terrible happens. Managing editor Eli Hoff, a sophomore, says coming back to campus felt like participating in an experiment.

“We as college students are socially starved, not fully mentally developed 18 to 22-year-olds. We aren't going to make the best decisions all the time,” he says. “And, while we can blame students for that stuff, it's also not unexpected that college students are going to gather and are going to party and things like that.”

The newspaper staff said the need for better testing and protocols was a “no-brainer” because everyone knew students would continue to hold gatherings, he says. A university spokesman has said that 330 violations of coronavirus rules have been referred to the administration.

Students have a personal responsibility to follow rules around mask-wearing and gatherings of no more than 10 people, Hoff says, but Greek life events and parties are still happening, specifically in the East Campus neighborhood.

“I think a good number of students — I would probably say the majority — are taking this pretty, pretty seriously,” he says. “The problem is that the majority can only do so much when there's not complete buy-in to taking this whole thing seriously.”

Interview Highlights 

On the confusion surrounding the outbreak at the University of Mississippi 

Noel Wilkin: “The message that they received from us was that an outbreak had occurred and we needed to place people in quarantine so that they didn't go to class the next day. That was the key element of what they needed to know. And then we followed up with housing to have a conversation with each person to determine what their plans would be and how they would make a decision about taking our quarantine space that's available or what decision was best for them and their family. And it took us some time to get to each student and have those conversations. And so the more recent guidance from the Mississippi Department of Health, where they quarantine temporarily on the floor while we do contact tracing, has given us a little bit more ability to have those conversations and have the students understand what's taking place more quickly.”

On whether it’s responsible to have students back on campus during the pandemic, as outbreaks are occurring at schools across the country 

Wilkin: ”Well, I tell you, that's a difficult question that institutions around the country have wrestled with. On our campus, the way we handled that, when our board passed a resolution that we would resume traditional operations in accordance with public health guidance. Our faculty and our university staff came together and looked at all of our course offerings and the activities that we do. This ended up with about 28% of our hours, our contact hours being offered in some in-person format. And we also recognize that this transitional period, this transformative period in students' lives from high school to life is something that we play a critical role in. And in having those conversations, we made decisions to bring people back to do those things that are best facilitated and should be facilitated in a face-to-face environment.”

On if there’s a threshold of positive tests that could influence the university to decide to go remote

Wilkin: “We thought about that, of course, because we need to know what levers are available to us to mitigate the spread of the virus. Remember, in the spring when the whole nation shut down and started locking down and closing establishments, the purpose of that was to mitigate the spread to the point that we would have as a nation, society the capacity to manage the virus. And on our campus, we're doing a similar thing where we track a number of metrics to see what our capacity to handle the number of cases that might be occurring on campus so that we know that we can continue doing the important things that we need to do in a way that prevents the virus from spreading and also have the capacity to respond to the things that come up as a result of that.”

On testing at the University of Missouri

Eli Hoff: “Testing is extremely difficult. I know only a couple of people who have been tested since coming back, and it's been because they've been directly exposed and they've described it as having to jump through a lot of hoops. And for students without insurance, they're saying that it's free of charge. For other students, there's a $150 copay that comes with it. And there's uncertainty, too, around quarantining, the sort of if someone's roommate has potentially been exposed, should that roommate be quarantined, too? And there are roommates that are going out into the world. Just it's an awkward situation from that perspective.”

On student-athletes at Mizzou demonstrating for racial justice already on campus, and how this moment will impact the rest of students’ college careers and lives

Hoff: “I think the pandemic will certainly change the way we think about things and that now I'm at the point where when I see old movies or TV shows or sporting events where it's large numbers of people without masks, now that is what's jarring to me versus seeing people in masks. And I'm sure that will take a certain amount of time to undo. And then with civil rights stuff going on here, too, it's sort of a rekindling of what happened and what didn't happen in 2015 for the University of Missouri. And so just last night, like you mentioned, a group of student athletes organized a march that drew quite the crowd, everyone wearing masks and socially distanced in the stadium.

“But it's definitely a defining moment for a lot of us in that we are living on our own. This is our first taste of independence, which obviously leads to some questionable decision making at times. But it's also a chance for us to come into our own as adults and take advantage of, you know, are we able to be treated like adults or do we need to be treated like kids? Because that's been a question in my mind is what's the most effective way to handle college students? Is it to treat them like adults who can handle this? Or is it to sort of treat them like kids who need to be put in timeout every once in a while? And I really don't know the answer to that.”

Chris Bentley produced and edited this story for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on September 4, 2020.


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Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.



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