Nicole Ludford should have been in art history class on a recent morning — her only course meeting in person this semester — but instead she stayed inside her apartment near the University of Wisconsin-Madison and reflected on the school’s most sweeping attempt yet to combat rising COVID-19 cases among students.
The day before, UW-Madison announced a two-week pause on all face-to-face courses and put two predominantly freshman dorms under quarantine as total infections linked to campus topped 1,400. In-person courses were canceled and set to resume remotely on Monday.
Ludford, a senior from Chicago’s River North neighborhood, isn’t sure the strategy will work. Though cases could drop for a short time, she said she worries the actions don’t address the underlying problem: students gathering, not wearing masks and breaking the rules.
“A lot of people are wearing masks but there’s still a good majority that I look at and I’m just like, ‘You’re going to ruin this year for me,’” said Ludford, 21. “It’s a lot of money to spend on rent and on online classes to be stuck in an apartment and looking out your window.”
On Tuesday, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said more than 300 students were under investigation for misconduct and 12 face “emergency suspension” for violating COVID-19 precautions. Two dozen sorority and fraternity chapters have also been quarantined.
In announcing the two-week pause last week, Blank referenced “the precedent set by several other universities” that did the same.
While its long-term success remains to be seen, more universities are trying the two-week pause to overcome outbreaks, as opposed to the more dramatic move of permanently sending students home. That also follows recommendations from public health experts, who say turning students loose could seed new infections in the communities where they return.
With 50 new cases on campus last week, Bradley University in Peoria said it would revert to online learning for at least two weeks and is requiring all students to quarantine. Northern Illinois University followed suit on Friday, suspending in-person classes for undergraduates until Sept. 28 after tallying more than 120 new cases. The University of Wisconsin’s LaCrosse campus have also announced a similar pause this week.
The approach has produced mixed results. It seems to have worked, for now, at the University of Notre Dame, which reinstated in-person classes in early September after a temporary shift to remote instruction. More than 400 students got the virus at the Roman Catholic university near South Bend, Indiana, following the first week of classes, an increase also attributed to off-campus gatherings and partying.
But at Temple University in Philadelphia, the hiatus wasn’t enough. The school announced in late August that classes would be moved online for at least two weeks. Five days later, however, Temple abandoned the plan, made most classes remote for the entire fall semester and offered housing refunds to students who wanted to leave campus.
Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne said the two-week break worked only because students became more aware of their behavior. It also sent a wake-up call to administrators that COVID-19 could multiply more rapidly than expected.
“There was a greater understanding and embrace by the student body at large as to the importance of following health protocols,” Browne said, “not only for the obvious reasons of not exposing others … but also the idea that if we did not control the spread, we were just going to have to stop in-person instruction, students would go home and everybody would be online. I don’t think anybody wanted that.”
In examining the cases, Notre Dame found off-campus gatherings — both large and small — accelerated the spread if masks weren’t worn, Browne said. Most cases didn’t stem from attending class or living in the dorms. About 87 students have faced disciplinary action for violating health protocols this semester, Browne said.
During its worst stretch about a month ago, Notre Dame recorded nearly 90 new cases in a single day. A campus hotel and off-campus apartments used for quarantine were filling up. And the school’s original testing program was overwhelmed with students waiting to be assessed.
But cases leveled off during the two-week pause and have remained low, according to the school’s public case dashboard. No more than 21 people have tested positive on a single day since Aug. 25, the earliest date still displayed. On multiple days since then, new daily cases landed at one or even zero.
“We are not taking this for granted,” Browne said, adding the school is prepared to make additional adjustments. “We certainly are not declaring victory. It’s something we are focused on daily.”
In Peoria, Bradley University is hoping to replicate that tentative success. The school of about 4,600 students announced the two-week mini-lockdown at a time when about 500 students were in quarantine because of potential exposure to COVID-19.
During the quarantine, set to expire Sept. 23, students must participate in surveillance testing, complete an online symptom tracker, continue wearing masks and refrain from socializing with others, the school says. They are allowed to leave their residences to pick up meals, enjoy the outdoors with roommates while masked, run essential errands and go to work.
Ethan McDougall, a senior at Bradley from the Rockford area, said he was frustrated with the school’s new restrictions. The sports communication major said he thought Bradley’s decision placed too much blame on students and didn’t hold administrators accountable for poor planning, such as not requiring all returning students to get tested for COVID-19 before moving into university housing.
“I don’t think Bradley did enough to ensure our safety,” said McDougall, 21. “There was no infrastructure set up to make sure this didn’t happen. … I don’t see how they can expect people who live in dorms to socially distance.”
Matthew Sciarabba, a Bradley junior from Alabama, questioned how effective the quarantine period will be. Sciarabba, majoring in game design, said the rules aren’t all that different from what students were already supposed to be doing, particularly for those living off campus.
“It’s really more of a transition to online classes rather than it being an actual quarantine because everything else is very lax,” said Sciarabba, 20, who lives off campus in a Bradley-owned apartment. “We can basically still be on campus and go do things, we just can’t go to class with large groups of people.”
Since Bradley announced the changes, at least 130 new tests came back positive, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard. Last week, the campus positivity rate hit nearly 15%, with 325 tests administered by university health services.
Bradley spokeswoman Renee Charles said the school will assess its options moving forward based on the rate of new infections, which include resuming in-person classes if cases decline. If cases remain high, Bradley might extend the all-student quarantine or move classes online and send most or all students home, Charles said.
“I think most students are abiding by (the restrictions) but there are always those little pockets who push the limits or disregard the rules,” Charles said in an email.
At UW-Madison, the numbers continue to surge. On Monday, the school reported 194 new cases — 134 of which involved students in campus residences, the school’s dashboard says. That brought the positivity rate among students to 9.2% and a rolling average for the past week above 10%. The cumulative case count now exceeds 2,100 since late July.
In another preventive measure, UW-Madison’s faculty senate voted Tuesday to cancel a nine-day spring break next semester to reduce travel to and from campus.
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