Big COVID-19 outbreaks at Halloween show colleges must stay vigilant

Several institutions saw significant spikes because of unmasked gatherings during the holiday.
By: | November 8, 2021
Adobe Stock

St. Michael’s College President Lorraine Sterritt said an outbreak of more than 60 positive COVID-19 cases was “not inevitable” after celebrations on Halloween, but that it was “heartbreaking.”

The private liberal arts institution of 1,500 undergraduates in Vermont was sailing through the beginning of the fall semester with its campus fully reopened. But several gatherings during Halloween led to a barrage of student cases, forcing officials to isolate those individuals and move classes online last Friday.

St. Michael’s, which also had to cancel numerous planned events, is giving its faculty discretion through Thanksgiving on whether they will hold classes virtually or in person, although most are expected to remain face-to-face. The college is pressing the continued use of seating charts so it can contract-trace individuals who are in close proximity to those who may test positive. There were 14 additional cases reported Sunday, adding to the more than 50 that were identified last week.

“We are deeply saddened that the investigation of the genesis of this increase in positive cases points to Halloween parties as being a significant part of the problem … where students were unmasked and in close contact,” Sterritt told students, staff and faculty. “We will get back to where we need to be, but we need to be clear about what caused this disruption to all of our lives. It was the disregard for our health-and-safety guidelines and College policies on the part of some members of our community.”

Sterritt said there is a possibility that St. Michael’s would levy sanctions against those who blatantly disobeyed that guidance. The college has closed access to all outside guests, suspended student social gatherings and has told them not to travel off-campus.

The St. Michael’s situation is a stark reminder to higher education institutions of how quickly their environments can change during the pandemic and how they should be prepared to pivot as holidays and gatherings, even among families, are approaching.

St. Michael’s is one of a number of institutions facing outbreaks from the Halloween period. The University of Michigan reported a surge in both COVID-19 cases and flu cases from Halloween week, and numbers at Georgetown University rose sharply during Halloween week.

St. Michael’s and more than 1,000 colleges and universities have vaccine mandates in place and require the use of masks indoors on campus, although some have lifted the latter restrictions as COVID-19 numbers have improved. Sterritt has urged that St. Michael’s staff, faculty and students get booster shots when they are eligible, and many institutions that don’t require flu shots are heavily promoting them through regular communications and social media this fall. Testing is another measure that has remained a solid prevention tool at places such as Tulane at St. Michael’s.