Earlier this summer, students at the University of Virginia packed bars, rental houses, apartments and fraternity houses as part of Midsummers, a party and reunion tradition of students.
Watching the surge in large gatherings on social media and hearing from concerned residents prompted Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker to call UVA’s plan to bring students back to campus a “recipe for disaster.” At a virtual press conference, Walker said local officials had little power to control student behavior and that their only option would be to work with the university president and Gov. Ralph Northam.
“I, for one, do not understand why the students are coming back into the community from all over the globe and why we would take that chance,” Walker said. She said she was worried that once the students come and then leave, the city will be left “cleaning up the fallout.”
The university ended up delaying undergraduate in-person instruction and residence hall move-in dates by two weeks and scolded students for their recklessness. “If such behavior continues, we will not make it long into the fall semester before a significant outbreak occurs and we then need to send students home,” Dean of Students Allen Groves wrote in a letter to students. “That’s the self-interested motivation to do better.”
Across the country, it’s move-in season for colleges, and while universities are desperately trying to save their academic year and preserve the finances of struggling schools, local officials are bracing for a virus explosion among young people who live in tight quarters, don’t follow social distancing rules and often behave as though they are young and invincible.
In Chapel Hill, N.C., the county health director wants classes at the University of North Carolina to be fully online for the first five weeks of the semester. In Athens, Ga., the mayor is warning that University of Georgia students could put his residents in danger if the city can’t enforce mask mandates and a 10 p.m. last call. In West Lafayette, Ind., home of Purdue University, the mayor is banking on the “Protect Purdue pledge” that pushes masks and hand washing to keep students and his city safe.
“If students begin to move back on campus next week, we could quickly become a hot spot for new cases as thousands of students from all across the country [and] world merge onto the UNC campus and begin to interact in a manner very normal for college students,” Orange County’s Health Director Quintana Stewart said last month.
Early data suggests young, healthy college-aged people can become infected by the virus but are likely to have mild or no symptoms. But, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has said college shared living spaces, including dorms, are like nursing or assisted living homes and could have a similar pattern of person-to-person transmission of the virus. That means students could spread the virus off campus and all the way back to their hometowns.
Colleges and universities have long struggled to wrap their arms around the party culture off campus that has resulted in deaths from binge drinking, Greek life hazing and more. If getting students to abide by public health and safety rules when it comes to partying is difficult, getting them to abide by strict social distancing guidelines could prove to be an impossible challenge.
Students at UNC have not been cooperative with the communicable disease investigation and control measures, Stewart said. In one of the first weeks students were back on campus, 13 UNC students tested positive for Covid-19, according to UNC’s dashboard of cases on campus. UNC’s first day of classes was Monday.
And at the height of the pandemic, a group of University of Texas at Austin students partied in Mexico during spring break and ended up spreading the virus to 64 people, according to a CDC report from June. The agency said during its investigation of the outbreak 211 students went to Cabo San Lucas, 49 students on the trip tested positive for the coronavirus, and 298 people were identified as having come in contact with people who had tested positive.
Now, colleges and universities say they’ve got the partying issue figured out. Since the infamous spring breakers case, UT Austin banned parties altogether, for example. UGA is limiting gatherings, but will allow some, like fraternity and sorority rush activities, to go on virtually.
Local politicians are left without many options, and putting their faith in pledges, like the one at Purdue. Forty percent of institutions surveyed by EAB, an education consulting firm, reported that they were planning to ask their students to sign a pledge or agreement to uphold physical distancing when they arrive on campus. Purdue has its pledge, and so does Virginia Tech, which includes a behavior agreement as part of their housing contract.
“Does that mean that there’s going to be absolutely no violations, we’re going to have 100 percent compliance? No, we don’t have that now,” said West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis, who believes the promise is a way to successfully repopulate the college town.
“But there is a lot of self-policing that goes on within our neighborhood,” he added. “There’s a strong social network and strong peer pressure to behave accordingly. And again, I’m not being naive, but that really carries a lot of weight.”
Arielle T. Kuperberg, a sociologist and professor at UNC Greensboro, said pledges could be a good start, but can’t be expected to stop students from partying — especially since undergraduates are in the age group that could be willing to take more risks.
“Making a promise and specifically saying, ‘I’m not going to do these things,’ I think will make the difference to some extent, but it’s not going to be a cure all,” she said. “People are not going to not party at all because college still has very strong expectations of partying and networking.”
“Their entire lives they’ve had this expectation of ‘College is the time when I really get to break free of my parents and I saw the movie where people are getting drunk in college and hooking up,’” Kuperburg said. “To expect them to be like, ‘Oh wait, I’m just going for the education part now,’ I don’t think it’s realistically going to stop everybody.”
Purdue President Mitch Daniels championed reopening colleges this fall, testifying before Congress in early June that his university, with an enrollment of more than 30,000 undergraduates would be gearing up for their return to campus. He also earned praise from President Donald Trump for his decision to welcome students back to campus.
Masks will be worn, there will be reduced classroom occupancy, comprehensive screening and testing of students upon their arrival and the university bought more than a mile’s worth of Plexiglas to protect staff, Daniels told the Senate HELP Committee.
“I’m enthusiastic about the return of students because you know when you talk about our local economy, when you talk about the added diversity to our community, which is already very diverse, it just brings sort of a bright light on our community,” Dennis said. “It just really helps revitalize our city.”
“I know what those wonderful years between 18 and 25 empower people to do,” Dennis said. “It’s the time for experimentation, it’s the time for challenging authority, but there is a greater good here.”
At a townhall Monday, UVA top brass tried to ease community member’s concerns about students returning to Charlottesville on Sept. 8. About 2,000 students have already returned to campus.
“In preparation for students returning, we have established a set of expectations and requirements for students, faculty and staff to follow, including wearing masks, maintaining proper physical distance and limiting social gatherings to no more than 15 people, which means no large parties,” said President Jim Ryan. “We also have criteria we will monitor daily in order to determine if we need to change course.”
But in places like Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is pushing against safety precautions including mask mandates, local officials are concerned that they won’t have the tools to keep their towns safe once students come back.
Kelly Girtz, the mayor of Athens, Ga., said mask mandates have been challenged and so too was his early last call ordinance for bars. Local officials in Georgia also have little sway over whether or not the university should close if there were to be a coronavirus outbreak.
“The governor has preempted localities from anything more lenient or more severe than his orders,” Girtz said. “He has not been of the mind that the regulatory environment is important, and I’m on the other end of the continuum where I think that particularly in the midst of human life and health and safety, the regulatory apparatus has to be a part of the conversation.”
After a series of parties last month at Tulane University in New Orleans, Dean of Students Erica Woodley urged students to stop partying, calling their behavior “indefensible and truly shameful.” She also said their actions had “the potential to undermine our significant progress against this deadly disease.”
As the college heads toward reopening for in-person instruction, Woodley said If students host parties of more than 15 people, they will face suspension or expulsion from the university.
To her students, she wrote: “Do you really want to be the reason that Tulane and New Orleans have to shut down again?”