When the University of Notre Dame, one of the academic gems of the US Midwest, threatened to send students home right after term began in August because of a Covid-19 outbreak, I silently gloated. My two university student daughters had stayed home rather than risk exposure to what we thought would be a college coronavirus catastrophe.
Then other Midwest universities began locking down fraternities, sororities, and dormitories because of exponentially rising infections. At the University of Michigan, graduate student instructors and residence hall staff went on strike over the issue. And all the while, my U of M student daughter sat in our living room, safely doing her sociology 101 class online.
We thought we were clever. Every time another Midwest college was forced to lock students in their rooms to tackle a coronavirus outbreak, we suffered another attack of self-satisfaction.
Then the college calamity headlines largely stopped. By October 10, Notre Dame’s seven-day Covid-19 test positivity percentage had fallen below 1 per cent. The drop came after the Catholic university shifted all classes online, restricted student movement, even within dormitories, and boosted “surveillance” testing of asymptomatic students. Today the campus in Indiana has 85 per cent of class hours in person and still only a handful of Covid-19 cases daily. This is no thanks, apparently, to its president, John Jenkins, who became infected after attending the White House ceremony for the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.
The fighting Irish, as the university’s students are known, clearly pulled up their socks after an initial bout of partying. “We came back stronger with a combination of symptomatic and surveillance testing, and contact tracing, but the students also responded well,” says Paul Browne, Notre Dame spokesman. Is it anything to do with being a Catholic college? “It’s too vain to say we succeeded because of our moral grounding,” he demurs. “But there is definitely a sense of taking care of one another.” And the university won’t take no for an answer: anyone who fails to show up for random surveillance testing “is tracked down and tested”, he says.
The University of Michigan takes a slightly different approach: surveillance testing is “opt-in”, and sometimes students don’t show up, says chief health officer, Preeti Malani, an infectious disease physician, U of M parent and alumna. The balance of instruction is nearly the opposite of Notre Dame: at Michigan, 25 per cent of classwork is in-person and the rest online. But after an early spate of cases in some group residential settings, the situation has stabilised.
“Is it perfect? No. Are people getting Covid? Yes. Are we having large outbreaks? No. We’ve had 500 cases in seven weeks,” on a campus of 50,000 students, Dr Malani says. The Covid-19 positivity rate was 2 per cent for the week starting October 4.
But this does put a strain on students. Alexxus Lige, 20, lives in a single dorm room, eats boxed cafeteria meals alone in her room, and studies online all day. But she says it’s not the solitude that’s getting her: it’s the other students. “A good percentage of students are not taking coronavirus seriously. I refuse to go anywhere except work and my dorm because I am so terrified of Covid,” she says. And staring at a screen for hours every day only intensifies the academic pressure of attending this top university, she says.
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Lily Jankowiak, 19, another U of M undergraduate, says she’s quite comfortable staying home most of the time, with roommates who, as athletes, are often tested for Covid-19.
Terry Hartle, of the American Council on Education, a trade association, says that overall the feared disaster has not materialised — yet. “I think colleges and universities have figured out how to deal with this, for the time being . . . Testing and social distancing appear to work.”
Does that mean my kids can safely return to campus next term? “There are no guarantees: what will happen when people spend more time inside is an unanswered question in general, and for higher education in particular,” Mr Hartle says. So my family may be right in the end about Covid-19 on campus. But I fervently hope we will be wrong.
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