College students have been back on campus for just a few weeks, and already the number of COVID-19 cases at universities across the United States is on the rise.
At least 26,000 positive cases have been reported at 1,500 colleges and universities since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to data compiled by The New York Times as of Wednesday. About 20,000 of them were recorded since late July, the Times reported.
Nine of the top 10 schools — 12 of the top 15 — with the highest number of cases are scattered across the South.
They include three in North Carolina, three in Alabama and three in Texas, the data show. Georgia has an additional two, and Florida has one.
University of Alabama at Birmingham
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Central Florida
University of Alabama
N.C. State University
University of Georgia
Texas A&M University
University of Texas at Austin
University of Notre Dame
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
East Carolina University
Texas Christian University
Georgia College & State University
Iowa State University
Caveats to the data
The number of coronavirus cases at a given college or university doesn’t account for the size of the student body or discrepancies in reporting.
“Given the disparities in size and transparency among universities, this data should not be used to make campus-to-campus comparisons,” The Times reported. “Some colleges remove people from their tallies once they recover. Some only report tests performed on campus. And some initially provided data but then stopped.”
A larger case count at big state schools like Central Florida and Texas A&M coincides to the size of the student population, according to the Times, and some schools include in their tallies the students and employees “who work in health care and are at a greater risk of exposure.”
The University of Alabama at Birmingham disputed the Times’ rankings on that ground, saying in a news release Wednesday the newspaper had combined its “university/non-clinical cases” with its “clinical enterprise cases,” which includes the university hospital.
Excluding those cases, the count drops to “239 total positive cases this year” among 148 students and 91 faculty and staff, officials said.
Problems in North Carolina
UNC-Chapel Hill was among the first major colleges to walk back its reopening plans after clusters emerged at residence halls following the first week of classes.
The school has recorded 766 cases since classes started at the beginning of August, The News & Observer reported, but the number of new daily cases has — for the most part — been “steadily declining since Aug. 19, when UNC switched to remote learning and students started moving out of dorms.”
School leaders at nearby N.C. State followed in UNC’s footsteps not long after, opting to move classes online as clusters of COVID-19 cases cropped up.
Students were initially allowed to stay in their residence halls as the university made the switch, but officials walked that decision back Wednesday as the number of reported clusters climbed to 24, The N&O reported.
“Our students want to be here,” Chancellor Randy Woodson said during a news conference. “Our parents want our students to be here. But they expect us to create an environment where they can be safe. And that’s our No. 1 priority. And it’s become untenable to provide on-campus housing and meet that threshold of health and safety.”
About 85 miles east of N.C. State, campus police at East Carolina University busted a 400-person party the first weekend back, McClatchy News reported.
It was one of at least 20 mass gatherings shut down over opening weekend.
Lt. Chris Sutton with ECU’s police department told McClatchy News the goal was to keep students on campus by pushing them to be “responsible for their behavior and to help us by policing themselves,” he said.
But school leaders opted to transition to remote learning less than two weeks later, citing “a greater spike (in cases) than anticipated,” The N&O reported.
North Carolina’s universities aren’t alone in their early struggle to contain the virus.
The University of Alabama recorded 500 new cases of the coronavirus since students returned to campus Aug. 19 — even after reporting “a less than 1% positivity rate” among students who were tested upon return, McClatchy News reported.
Bars closed in the area for two weeks to try and quell the spread, and university officials announced a two-week moratorium on all student gatherings on and off campus.
“Despite robust testing, training, health and safety measures we carefully and clearly implemented, there’s an unacceptable rise in positive COVID cases on our campus,” university President Stuart R. Bell said in a statement. “Make no mistake, this trend is a real threat to our ability to complete the semester on campus.”
A lack of adherence to social distancing guidelines and mask mandates at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth also had students fearful last week the campus would revert to online-only learning, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
“It’s not going to happen,” Senior Madison Olmo told the newspaper of finishing the semester on campus.
She said there have been “too many students without masks” and “gathering in groups or hosting parties,” meaning “it is only a matter of time before the school has an outbreak that forces classes back online,” according to the Star-Telegram.
The bigger picture
Most universities were drafting a plan for in-person instruction months in advance, making it difficult to predict how the virus would behave by the time students returned in the fall.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tracked COVID-19 hotspots across the country, which helped to show when and where the coronavirus surged depending on geography and population density.
A large portion of the Northeast, for example, experienced hotspots early on the pandemic during March and April, according to the CDC. Case counts in the South and West, meanwhile, didn’t surge until June and July.
The virus was also slow to spread to smaller cities and less urban areas — which comprise much of the Southeast — while large cities and metropolitan areas became hotspots early on, the CDC’s data show.