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Facing Coronavirus Spikes, Colleges Send Students Home Against the Warnings of Public Health Officials

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 9/8/2020 Lauren Camera
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: COLUMBIA, SC - SEPTEMBER 03: Students walk on campus at the University of South Carolina on September 3, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. During the final week of August, the university reported a 26.6 percent positivity rate among the student population tested for the COVID-19 virus. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images) © (Sean Rayford/Getty Images) COLUMBIA, SC - SEPTEMBER 03: Students walk on campus at the University of South Carolina on September 3, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. During the final week of August, the university reported a 26.6 percent positivity rate among the student population tested for the COVID-19 virus. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Some colleges and universities inundated with spikes in coronavirus infections are sending students home despite high-ranking White House public health officials' warnings that doing so could ignite a national resurgence of COVID-19.

"It's the worst thing you could do," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last week. "When you send them home, particularly when you're dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection."

Last week, students at James Madison University in Virginia were told to go back home, some just days after arriving, when it became clear that the positivity rate was rising too rapidly to control. California State University, Chico also announced last week plans to close residence halls and move in-person classes to online after a spike in cases among 18- to 24-year-olds in the surrounding area. And officials at Indiana University at Bloomington recommended that all of the university's 40 Greek houses close their chapters because of increasing positivity rates.

Among the most high-profile examples: Administrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told undergraduates last month to return home less than a week after moving into residence halls and starting classes.

The decision is a double-whammy: Returning students from all over the country and globe put the immediate college town at increased risk of infection, just as sending students home puts their hometowns at risk upon their return.

"Keep them at the university in a place that's sequestered enough from the other students so that you don't get a cluster in the university, but don't have them go home, because they could be spreading it in their home state," Fauci said.

White House officials began warning governors last week that students have the potential to drive new spikes in COVID-19 infections all across the country, especially if colleges and universities send students who might be asymptomatic back home.


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"Sending these individuals back home in their asymptomatic state to spread the virus in their hometown or among their vulnerable households could really recreate what we experienced over the June time frame in the South," Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force told governors, according to media reports.

The growing concerns come on the heels of the World Health Organization announcement that young people had become the biggest drivers of new infections and as colleges and universities across the country attempting to reopen for in-person learning are overwhelmed by thousands of new infections.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than a third of the country's 5,000 campuses are giving it a go despite a series of high-profile failures and despite the most obvious obstacle of all: counting on students to change their behavior.

[ MAP: The Spread of Coronavirus ]

More than 1,200 students at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa have tested positive for COVID-19 since the campus opened last month. The University of Iowa, Illinois State University and the University of South Carolina each reported more than 600 cases.

According to a survey by The New York Times of 1,500 colleges and universities, officials have recorded more than 26,000 cases of the coronavirus at more than 750 institutions since the pandemic began. As it pertains to reopenings this academic year, more than a dozen universities – most of them large public schools in the South – have reported more than 500 cases each, and more than 30 institutions nationwide have had at least 200 cases.

The caseloads are only expected to grow as colleges and universities are finding it nearly impossible to prevent students from partying in large groups, despite repeated warnings.

Notably, not all schools are making the decision to send students home, including at the University of Alabama, home to one of the largest numbers of recorded positive cases. San Diego State University also announced that it will not be closing residence halls but will pivot to remote learning after testing revealed nearly 300 cases of COVID-19.

"The risk in closing a college campus and forcing thousands of students home at once is that the virus then has the opportunity to spread more widely to other geographic locations and possibly more vulnerable populations," Dr. Michael Saag, a professor of medicine at the university and director of the Birmingham Division of Infectious Diseases said in a statement.

Copyright 2020 U.S. News & World Report

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