I’m not entirely sure what university leaders were thinking this summer as they drew up plans to bring students back to campus.
Perhaps many hoped that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic we’ve all been living through since March would be behind us. Perhaps they thought a good set of guidelines would prevent the illness from spreading.
All of these best-laid plans have been systematically demonstrated to be wishful thinking as universities around the country suddenly found themselves fighting rapid Covid-19 outbreaks within days of inviting students to return. This past Sunday, Temple University abruptly cancelled in-person classes for two weeks after more than 100 cases of Covid were reported over the weekend. And Temple’s outbreak is miniscule compared to the University of Alabama that confirmed more than 1,000 new cases of the disease in less than two weeks after returning to class.
Nearly everywhere students have returned to classes, Covid outbreaks have followed. It was entirely predictable.
Yascha Mounk, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in the Atlantic on August 8 of university reopening plans that “these plans all founder on the same basic problem: Most college students are at an age when the urge to socialize is especially strong. Whatever the rules may say, young people will have parties, hook up, and leave campus to have fun.”
According to news accounts, this has been precisely the problem. As Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley noted over the weekend, the way to deal with college campuses right now is the same way health officials dealt with nursing homes in the early days of the pandemic. Group living facilities were the most significant sources of spread and accounted for high percentages of total deaths from cases through April and into May.
Philadelphia recently met a milestone of a positivity testing rate of 4.1 %, a low and better than the state of Pennsylvania’s current 4.6. While most area University students are from Pennsylvania and nearby – in states that have done even better at containing the spread of Covid-19, many undergraduates come from states where the disease has essentially run wild, including Southern states where positivity rates have been as high as 12 to 17% over the past 14 days. Accepting these students back on campus was a dangerous move.
The fault is not with parents or the students. They were put in difficult positions and made the mistake of thinking their universities had their best interest and safety in mind. Now colleges are scrambling to lock down students and retreat from in-person classes, throwing more chaos into an already uncertain situation.
Hindsight is always 20/20, as the cliché goes. But it did not take extraordinary vision to see college kids back on campus was an impending disaster.