As universities plan for students' return amid coronavirus, some schools worry about risky 'culture'

Students, faculty face hard questions as cases increase for younger adults.

June 26, 2020, 4:12 AM

Heather Adams, a rising junior at American University, recently came to terms with a new reality: she won’t be heading back to campus in Washington, D.C. this fall. Though her school announced precautions to help keep students safe from the novel coronavirus, Adams said she wasn't convinced.

“It feels like they are opening up irresponsibly and for their own benefit to get more money and I don't feel like they're really taking our safety into account as much as they need to,” Adams said.

Dana Damiani, a rising senior at Nazareth College in New York, however, isn't about to miss her last year.

“I decided to go back because I have one year left and I trust my professors and the university to keep me safe,” said Damiani. “I am not going to stay home when I have the chance to be with my friends and take classes on campus."

The questions of whether, and how, to return to college campuses are ones with which millions of American families are grappling, as schools from coast to coast cautiously unveil a patchwork of policies for allowing students back and permitting virtual learning. They're also questions that have come under sharp criticism as officials say young people are increasingly testing positive for the coronavirus and becoming a worrying vector for COVID-19.

And while students like Adams and Damiani decide whether they believe their colleges or universities will be acting responsibly in allowing students back, some school officials and health experts told ABC News that they're worried about the other end of the equation: how students will behave themselves, away from their parents and amid a nationwide pandemic.

“There are going to be outbreaks on our campuses because they are the equivalent of landlocked cruise ships,” said William Tierney, a University Professor Emeritus and Founding Director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of California. “When their parents aren't around they're not going to wear their masks if they don't want to, so who will the responsibility fall on to? Who will be checking on them at all times?”

School officials at several universities told ABC News that in preparing for the fall semester, universities and colleges have partnered with experts, consulted with their state governments, and allowed faculty members and students to contribute to their reopening policies, in hopes of creating the safest environments possible.

In an email to students, reviewed by ABC News, American University President Sylvia Burwell acknowledged that the school predicts it will take a financial hit, like many other universities, due to the pandemic. But she emphasized that students' safety was the school's first concern.

“As we move forward, the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff, as well as our larger DC community, are our top priority. COVID-19 will still be with us in the fall (and potentially longer) as we resume in-person activity,” Burwell said in the email. “Our plan works to create the safest possible environment on our campus with the most up-to-date information currently available. Unfortunately, there is no scenario that can guarantee zero infections in our community.”

In response to a request for comment from ABC News, American University provided a statement outlining the "extensive steps" it said it plans to take to protect students, including mandatory health and safety training for students and faculty, social distancing and face-covering requirements, and the availability of COVID-19 testing. It is also moving to single-occupancy rooms in housing.

The school said it has developed a "blended format" of in-person and online instruction to accommodate students who, "based on their individual circumstances, may not want or be able to return to campus."

An ongoing survey of nearly 1,000 colleges in the Chronicle of Higher Education said that 63% of colleges and universities are planning to offer in-person classes, 17% are proposing a hybrid learning model, 8% are planning for online-only classes and the rest are considering a range of scenarios or are still waiting to decide.

Bringing students back to campus at all is the first challenge, and some school leaders have gone to great lengths to ensure thousands of students can safely gather in one place without easily bringing in the virus. But some critics say precautions won't be enough, especially if the students don't behave safely themselves.

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Mandatory quarantines, 'virtual block parties' among precautions

In a letter to students on Monday, Laurie Patton, President of Middlebury College in Vermont, announced that students must complete a 14-day quarantine period at home before they can travel to campus.

Students will then be tested for COVID-19 and will have to remain in their dorm rooms for 24 hours until they receive a negative test result. They will be released from “room quarantine” to “campus quarantine,” where they will not be allowed to leave campus.

“This coming academic year we will be asking all Middlebury citizens to focus on two specific aspects of that mission: contributing to our communities by taking responsibility for our own and each other’s health, and addressing the world’s most challenging problems by doing our part to reduce the spread of COVID-19 while we are learning together,” said Patton in the letter, also reviewed by ABC News.

Erika Beck, the president of California State University Channel Islands, said the school will be bringing students back, but only 5% of classes will be in-person. Dorms will be at 25% capacity so that students have their own rooms and bathrooms.

Beck also said the university plans to organize what she called "virtual block parties" in order to allow students to socialize without being in physical contact.

“Students will be able to have virtual block parties,” said Beck. “They will be able to have fun while staying safe. We knew that we needed to create a virtual environment to make sure that our students have what they need to have a realistic post-pandemic future.”

ABC News spoke with nine universities and each said they would implement safety precautions, ranging from mandatory COVID-19 testing to quarantines to building temporary classrooms for additional space. Many said they would allow students who are uneasy to take virtual classes.

But even with precautions planned, Matthew G. Heinz, an internist at Tucson Medical Center in Arizona who said he has been admitting younger patients to his hospital, said he believes colleges and universities should not reopen their campuses to students.

“I would say to any university president to look at these numbers,” Heinz told ABC News. “You're bringing thousands of people back to the area who are potentially bringing the virus from other places. And we’ve been seeing younger people not wear masks and gather in large numbers so I just don’t know how universities will control the virus from spreading and from outbreaks occurring.”

Dr. Atul Nakhasi, a primary care physician and policy adviser at the Department of Health Services in Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest health system, said he is “almost certainly” expecting to see outbreaks on college campuses as the number of cases among younger people increase.

“Every August in this country about 75 million Americans congregate in aggregate settings -- schools, colleges and universities welcome students back on campus,” said Nakhasi. “And that’s when we see the start of flu season so now with COVID-19, I think schools need to think very, very carefully and cautiously if they're going to bring people back, how are they doing it in a safe and proactive way to ensure that these locations don't become centers and clusters of outbreaks.”

Nakhasi said he's "really concerned, given the numbers we are seeing of younger patients getting sick."

“They are out and about and eventually are interacting with people who may be more vulnerable," he said.

Changing the student 'culture' to fight a pandemic

On a conference call with state governors Monday, Vice President Mike Pence warned that young people across the country are increasingly testing positive for coronavirus, especially in states like Florida and Texas, which have seen major increases in coronavirus cases since reopening.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott also raised concerns that bars and college sports could act as a breeding ground for the virus among the younger demographic.

It's behavior that some officials and experts worry young adults will bring with them when they head back to school.

PHOTO: Large crowds of students walk through the campus of UC Berkeley in downtown Berkeley, Calif., October 9, 2018.
Large crowds of students walk through the campus of UC Berkeley in downtown Berkeley, Calif., October 9, 2018.
Getty Images, FILE

Michael Fitts, the president of Tulane University in New Orleans, La., told ABC News school officials there are keeping a close eye on the public health situation in the state, have been "following public experts" and are prepared to move all classes online if it becomes necessary.

Fitts said Tulane has taken aggressive measures to ensure the safety of their students when they return to campus in the fall -- including mandating masks, building temporary classrooms and cafeterias to ensure extra space, and developing a testing program that would see students and faculty tested on campus periodically.

Fitts said no decision has yet been made about whether the football team will have games, and "absolutely" no decision has been made whether fans will be able to attend should they move forward.

But ultimately, he said it comes down to changing the "culture" of student behavior.

"We have to change the culture. We have to have our students really thinking about their health and the safety and health of the people around them," Fitts said. "They have to be careful especially when they leave campus. How to get them to be safe when they're there outside the campus is very important as well."

Dr. Dale Bratzler, Chief COVID-19 Officer for the University of Oklahoma, which is also planning on opening in the fall, agreed.

"We can make most of the experiences on campus as safe as possible," he said. "What I can't control is student behavior if they go off campus or what they do when they're not in our buildings and our classrooms."

The University of Oklahoma has been working with its marketing team to launch a broad campus public relations campaign to that end, Bratzler said.

"We've been working on actually developing cultural messages that might resonate with students and others," Bratzler added, which includes catchy slogans and masks in vending machines.

Students not the only ones at risk

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health experts have said that it appears younger people weather the disease better than older, at-risk populations. But what may be good news for the students themselves worries some older faculty members and school officials.

Russell Powell, Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Boston University, wrote a letter to the university and started a petition asking for the university to allow faculty to have the option to teach from home.

Powell told ABC News that since most faculty members are 55 and over, opening up the university will put vulnerable staff members at risk.

“They want to get back to their student life and they may not be thinking about what the consequences are for older faculty who are having to commute to campus and walk through those hallways and teach in those poorly ventilated classrooms,” said Powell. “No matter how safe you try to make campus, you're going to have outbreaks.”

Boston University did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment about the letter.

In the meantime, in the remaining summer months school officials said they'll be watching closely how the pandemic progresses and could change their policies accordingly.

But for now, Adams, the American University rising junior, seemed to agree that the precautions won't be enough against a student body that may not respect the guidelines.

“I think the idea that a bunch of college students are not going to stand within six feet of each other is already a stretch but to suggest they're not going to hang out a lot and probably touch each other and breathe on each other is not realistic,” said Adams. “I know for a fact that a couple of my friends who are planning on going back already aren't putting a lot of importance into these things and they will be hanging out."

Laura Romero, an ABC News desk assistant, attends American University.

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