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Colleges and COVID-19 Outbreaks: Who is Responsible?

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

By Kristin Merrilees


Image via UNC-Chapel Hill


In the past several weeks, many colleges have welcomed students back to campus for various degrees in-person instruction and activities. However, they’ve also seen outbreaks of COVID-19. After only a week of classes and an increased infection rate, UNC-Chapel Hill announced that “effective Aug. 19, all undergraduate in-person instruction [would] shift to remote learning.” The school also expected that most students would move out of residence halls. On August 18th, after 147 people tested positive, the University of Notre Dame announced it would be moving to online instruction for at least the next two weeks.


Other schools that have chosen to return to campus have seen similar situations. Since the University of Alabama resumed classes, there’ve been 1,200+ positive cases of the coronavirus. A few days ago, Cornell reported a COVID-19 cluster, linked to gatherings in which social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines were not adhered to, according to the Tompkins County Department of Health. On September 2nd, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported “a concerning upward trend of positive COVID-19 cases among undergraduate students” on its campus, asking students to only participate in essential in-person activities.


The outbreaks of COVID-19 on colleges across the country, and the resulting campus shutdowns, are no doubt alarming and heartbreaking to students, parents, university staff, and community members alike. But it seems there is one question that no one can quite agree on. When these outbreaks occur, who is at fault: the university or the students?


As an incoming college freshman, all summer I’ve been attentively following colleges’ reopening plans for Fall 2020. I’ve been watching as many of my friends from high school go off to college (posting their experiences on social media, as we all do), and others, whose colleges have transitioned to all-online, stay home. (I, too, am doing what’s more colloquially known amongst us college students as “Zoom University”). Thus, I’ve been deeply emerged in the discourse regarding this question.


On the one hand, some are blaming the students for disregarding safe COVID-19 practices. And yes, many students have, in fact, been disregarding these guidelines, socializing and partying in large groups, as has been shared widely on social media. There’s this video showing a large group of Penn State students gathering. Another example is this video of students from the University of Georgia. Or this video, taken at Syracuse University.


As an important note, it is absolutely not the case that everyone on college campuses is disregarding social distancing and partying away. Many students are following guidelines strictly and encouraging, even pleading, with fellow students to do the same and protect their communities. The colleges, too, are holding students accountable, suspending and even expelling those who break COVID-19 rules.


Another perspective, however, is that colleges should be the ones held accountable when outbreaks occur. In fact, when UNC-Chapel Hill switched to remote undergraduate instruction, its student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, published a strongly-worded editorial against the university, with the fitting print title, “UNC has a clusterf*ck on its hands.”


Image via the National Press Club Journalism Institute


The editorial states, “University leadership should have expected students, many of whom are now living on their own for the first time, to be reckless. Reports of parties throughout the weekend come as no surprise. Though these students are not faultless, it was the University’s responsibility to disincentivize such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in-person earlier on.”

"We're angry - and we're scared [...] tired of being treated like cash cows by a University with such blatant disregard for our lives" - Daily Tar Heel

This echoes a July piece published in The Atlantic by two professors, Julia Marcus and Jessica Gold, who teach at Harvard Medical School and Washington University in St. Louis, respectively, titled “Colleges Are Getting Ready to Blame Their Students.” They state, “students, like administrators, will be motivated to keep campuses open. But resisting the temptation to socialize won’t be easy for students - and with universities reopening their campuses in the midst of a raging pandemic, the responsibility for keeping campuses safe is hardly the students’ alone.”


As an incoming college student myself, I understand the hope and expectation that college students will follow COVID-19 guidelines and avoid mass gatherings. But the fact of the matter is, and, as Gold and Marcus also describe, we are facing a lot right now (mental and physical health issues, uncertainty, economic and personal crisis), and college kids are known to engage in risky behavior, even if there wasn’t a pandemic going on. Colleges are also facing enormous financial pressures right now, which may force them to return students to campus in some capacity - whether this is the safest option or not.


Ultimately, I think there isn’t an easy answer to the question of “who should be held accountable?” Yes, students and young adults should not be engaging in mass gatherings in which they break social distancing guidelines. However, colleges also have a responsibility to keep students safe - and right now, many don’t seem to be fulfilling this responsibility.


Written by writer Kristin Merrilees

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