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Students return to campus as the shadow of an outbreak looms

  • 5 min to read
Students move in during coronavirus

Students move into Dabney Hall on August 20, 2020. The University of Cincinnati expects around 5,000 students to live in university affiliated housing this year.

With campus life resuming at the University of Cincinnati, students, faculty and administrators brace for the likelihood of a campus-wide outbreak. 

As early as Aug. 14, thousands of new and returning students began moving into residence halls optimistic about regaining a sense of normalcy after the coronavirus pandemic forced the university to close its doors and transition to remote learning. 

But the pandemic has cast a shadow over welcome week, as reports surface of public universities across the country experiencing outbreaks only a week after reopening.

Having only just moved into on-campus housing, first-year chemical engineering major Ashley Florence has already prepared herself for the inevitability of being sent home before the semester ends. 

"I know that's a reality," Florence said. "I just don't want it to happen." 

The university expects approximately 5,000 students to opt for on-campus or university-affiliated housing, said UC spokeswoman M.B. Reilly in an email to The News Record. Around 7,200 students lived in university housing last year, she added. 

Of the many protocols adopted by the university to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, students on campus are required to wear a face covering at all times—except when eating or in a private room—maintain a distance of six feet from others while in open space and to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people. 

While many students on campus appear to be following social distancing and mask protocols, there are just as many who are not, said Florence. 

Though he's confident in the university's ability to contain an outbreak, first-year aerospace engineering major Slade Brooks said that he doesn't trust students to police themselves and that he's already heard rumors of parties off-campus. 

Local media has already reported on crowded dining halls and students hosting parties.

Students who fail to follow campus health guidelines are subject to charges under the university's student code of conduct, Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Kelly Cantwell said. University police will watch for large gatherings of students and issue reminders as necessary, she added.

Yet there appears to be little to no enforcement on campus from Public Safety, as students were seen roaming campus during welcome week without face masks. 

An outbreak on campus will most likely occur in places where guidelines are not being followed such as residence halls, frat houses and parties, said Robert Murphy, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, who specializes in infectious disease. 

Students' unwillingness to wear masks and social distance will cause the university to experience an outbreak early in the semester, he said. "These kids get into college; they have to be smart. They need to get more smart." 

Only a week into the fall semester, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill was forced to revert to remote learning after more than 100 students tested positive for COVID-19. 

Because the university isn't requiring testing on arrival, "the chance for failure is really high," Murphy said, adding that all students should be tested on arrival and frequently afterward. 

In lieu of testing on arrival, the university will conduct testing on randomly selected students living on campus beginning the first week of classes. 

Virus testing is also available to students experiencing symptoms as well as those who have come into close contact with an infected individual. 

The university expects to test 1,000 students during the first week of classes, said Christopher Lewis, vice provost for academic programs at UC. 

Certain activities and classes may be canceled based on the results of this testing. 

The University of Illinois, which has a larger enrollment than UC, is going as far as administering mandatory virus tests twice a week for all students living on campus, even those who are enrolled in online classes exclusively. 

However, this testing strategy conducted by the University of Illinois is proprietary and not yet available in Ohio, said Lewis, who is a professor of family and community medicine at UC. 

There is also skepticism that too much testing would create a high number of false-positive tests, he said, adding that testing decisions are based on scientific modeling from the academic health colleges. 

"While testing is also about stopping spread, it is more so about taking a snapshot at one moment in time to determine prevalence to guide overarching decision making," he said. 

Given a lack of systematic studies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend testing all students upon arrival. There is persistent debate as to the effectiveness of this kind of testing. 

Students are also being asked to complete a self-administered wellness check daily before coming to campus. 

One problem with this approach is that it doesn't account for asymptomatic carriers – those who are contagious but are not experiencing the telltale signs of infection, Murphy said. Asymptomatic carriers are most responsible for spreading the virus and account for up to 40% of cases, he said. 

In the event of an outbreak, the university—based on guidelines from the Cincinnati Department of Health—has reserved approximately 530 dorm rooms to be used for quarantine, Reilly said. Students living in single rooms are able to stay there during quarantine, she added.

If quarantine space reaches maximum capacity, common spaces will be commandeered for quarantine use, though the university recommends that students return to their permanent homes should they need to quarantine. 

"This recommendation stems from both clinical experience and research. Quarantine or isolation is very difficult for some students, and most ultimately opt to go home to be more comfortable and for increased emotional and psychological wellbeing," Executive Director of University Health Services Kim Miller said in a statement. 

Considering the unpredictability of the pandemic, it's not easy to plan for the event of another campus closure.

"The one thing we've learned so far in COVID, you can't decide ahead of time what the right answer is," Miller said at an Aug. 17 faculty town hall meeting. 

Yet faculty have expressed concern that the lack of a university-wide contingency plan has created a patchwork of inconsistent policies throughout various colleges. 

"In truth, UC faculty, students and staff travel daily between multiple university buildings regardless of which college those buildings ostensibly belong to," read a statement from the executive council of the UC chapter of the American Association for University Professors. "Despite well-meaning college-level efforts at clarity, many unanswered questions remain."

But given that each college has different operational needs, "it does make sense to allow them flexibility in how they develop their own policies," said Greg Loving, faculty senate chair. 

There are also frustrations that UC is not offering virus testing to faculty, he said. "But this situation is so global and so systemic that we can't just snap our fingers [and have] testing available for everybody."

The university has been forced to make difficult decisions at nearly every turn during the pandemic, Loving said.

"We've been putting out the fires that are closest to us and trying to get the university open and running in some capacity," he said. "Retrospect really is the only way we're going to be certain that what we've done is right."

As a line of students wrapped out the door of Edwards Center on the afternoon of Aug. 19, Nikki Morr was waiting across the street for her son, Coleton, a first-year DAAP student, to get his Bearcat Card.

Though Morr is concerned for her son's health, she thinks being on campus is an important step toward independence. 

"He needed to get away and go become his own person," she said, adding that if students are serious about being on campus, they will follow public health guidelines. 

Kiara Gross, a second-year student majoring in electronic media, also thinks that it's up to students to keep the campus open. 

"I'm doing my part," she said. "I hope everyone else does theirs." 

The university is encouraging students to report any symptoms related to COVID-19 to COVIDWatch@uc.edu