How 5 colleges have reacted to spring COVID spikes

Strong in their guidance, institutions are again reminding students that gatherings and ignoring protocols can have negative consequences.

Did a perfect storm of events –St. Patrick’s Day, Spring Break, religious holidays and the NCAA tournament – lead to students becoming more lax in adhering to safety protocols amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

Two colleges in New England, Emerson College in Boston and Bates Colleges in Lewiston, Maine, have had to lock down campuses recently because of outbreaks, with Emerson reporting 26 new cases. Several time zones away, the University of the Nations in Kona, Hawaii, has asked students to shelter in place after 31 positive cases were reported.

With semesters coming to a close, commencements on the horizon and the hope of vaccines being dispensed to students, colleges aren’t taking chances when a spike in numbers occurs. Institution leaders are being quite vocal in letting students know those trends are is not OK.

“Failure to follow campus in-room restriction directives will result in immediate referral to the student conduct system, which will likely result in being removed from college housing and being switched to remote learning for the remainder of the semester,” said Joshua McIntosh, Vice President for Campus Life at Bates College in a statement to the community. Bates reported 60 new cases last week. “I am very sorry that we need to take these actions at such a stressful point in the semester, and we need your help in adhering strictly to these guidelines so that we succeed in containing this outbreak.”

Washington State University President Kirk Schulz and his team were even more emphatic in addressing students after reports of partying and gatherings surfaced, causing COVID numbers to rise in Whitman County. More than 100 positive cases were reported alone on WSU’s campus.

“This needs to stop. Now. Student gatherings and parties, which ignored basic safety and health protocols, have directly resulted in an increase of COVID†‘19 cases,” Schulz’s letter to students said. “What you do this weekend, and for the next two weeks, will determine what happens from here. No group gatherings. Wear masks. Stay home and call for medical care if ANY symptoms are present. Washington State health guidelines are still in effect, regardless of what is occurring in other states.”

Washington State had to suspend Greek Life while threatening to shut down other resources to students. The university, which has done fantastic work in the vaccination throughout its community, unfortunately had to deliver seemingly routine information on the threats of COVID-19 to its constituents.

“Poor decisions, including those made by students, may cause Whitman County (and its 50,000 residents) to go back to Phase 2, or even Phase 1,” Schulz’s letter went on to say. “This is real. This is serious. Our numbers are alarmingly high. This is unacceptable. We are potentially putting our community and vulnerable populations at an increased risk. As Cougs, we need to do better.”

How others are reacting

In Michigan, COVID case numbers have reached highs the past two days that have not  been experienced since November. Many colleges and universities canceled Spring Break – although some like Western Michigan University and Oakland University did not, leading students to pursue travel to more open states such as Florida. Even those that did impose restrictions saw students finding ways to get together, effectively utilizing extra days off to plan and host parties.

Wayne State University, located in Detroit, simply has been caught in a wave of local cases (positivity rates have surpassed 15%), forced to cancel sporting events, halt in-person instruction and restrict access to certain facilities for 10 days, taking an abundance of caution to protect those in the city. At the same time, it is also asking its community to protect itself.

“We continue to urge members of campus to get a vaccination if they haven’t yet done so,” President M. Roy Wilson told Wayne State’s faculty and students. “While we are all hopeful about the future with the rollout of vaccinations, we must continue to take the appropriate precautions to ensure the health and safety of our campus and the broader Detroit community.”

Even the smallest colleges have not been immune from outbreaks over the past few weeks. Magdelen College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, whose enrollment is under 100, held Good Friday and Easter services on campus for students and the public where masks and social distancing were not required, according to the New Hampshire Union-Leader. Nearly one-fifth of students tested positive for COVID, prompting the college to go remote with classes and the Department of Health to send a warning to community members who may have attended these events about potential exposure to the virus.

In mid-March, however, the university did recognize the importance of safety measures around COVID, noting it was extending its Spring Break by a week and shifting to remote learning to more safely mitigate potential spread in and around the community.

“This decision was not made out of fear but as an act of charity for those who are vulnerable,” said the letter Unexpected Fasting (and COVID-19)  to the community. “This was an opportunity for Magdalen College to lead as an institution. The decision to make this change was based on the views expressed by parents and students and consultation with experts on the matter, especially those with expertise on COVID-19 and residential higher education.”

The potential for outbreaks doesn’t seem to be a concern at one institution, Wichita State University in Kansas, which said last week it is halting all protocols, including mask wearing, gatherings and social distancing – taking a cue from county commissioners who voted to end those protective strategies. Numbers in and around the county have remained very low.

Still, the university sent a letter to its constituents after announcing the changes, stating it “strongly encourages our entire campus community to engage in these practices whenever possible.” And get vaccinated as well.

Interim president Rick Muma and interim provost Shirley Lefever closed with this: “As we have said countless times before, if this pandemic taught us nothing else, it is that even the best-laid plans and intentions cannot guarantee us certainties. So, as we work toward what will now be our post-pandemic normal, we understand that we must continue to remain flexible and willing and able to pivot to alternative arrangements as circumstances dictate.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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