Home US College towns fear super-spreader semester as students descend

College towns fear super-spreader semester as students descend

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.

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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.”

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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?”

Source Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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