Last Monday, senior White House coronavirus task force officials urged governors across the country to stop sending your COVID-infected college students home to their parents’ homes or risk another spike nationwide, just like the one who did overwhelmed the south this summer.
So far, the task force’s request to governors to speak to their college presidents seems to have made little difference. By the end of the week, some colleges in the country’s largest coronavirus hotspots not only allowed students to go home after exposure or infection, they also ordered them to go home.
“You need to move to your home or other off-campus location as soon as possible for the duration of your self-isolation period,”
This lack of containment had dire consequences. Statesboro, the small town where Georgia Southern is located, has recorded more than 700 positive cases of coronavirus in the last two weeks of August. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, this was one of the highest per capita growth rates in a US metropolitan area during this stretch.
“I have parents in their seventies visiting me this holiday weekend and I’m scared to death they’ll come to our little town,” Leticia McGrath, a professor of Spanish at Georgia Southern University for over two decades, told The Daily Tier . “It’s bad.”
The month the students traveled back to their campus, the coronavirus hot zones hiked with them. Now, many of the cities where cases are increasing the fastest – places like Iowa City, Auburn, Statesboro, and Ames – are university cities. And while lax containment policies on and off campus have created local breeding grounds for the virus, they are not expected to stay on-site long as sick students leave campus and fall weather increases the spread of the virus.
“Original sin invited students back onto campus,” said Michael Innis-Jimenez, a professor of American studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where more than 2,000 students tested positive for the coronavirus in the past three weeks. “And now it will be very problematic to bring her home. I think they finally saw that in the White House. “
Still, the White House’s response to the virus has been far from consistent. Last Sunday, the White House’s coronavirus task force called on the Iowa government, Kim Reynolds, to grant a nationwide mask mandate. The state now had the highest number of new infections in the country. The governor publicly disagreed with the proposal. Four days later, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams sided with Reynolds and told a local news station, “If you try to force people, they will resist you.”
The changing politics at many universities reflect the reaction of the White House. Colleges are trying hard to find quarantine rooms on campus long after the number of positive cases on their campus hit hundreds.
The offices of the governors of each of these states did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast, and the universities did not confirm whether the governors advised them to change their policies following Monday’s call. They also did not respond to requests for comment on their current policies as to whether exposed or infected students should stay on campus.
On Tuesday, the day after the White House urged governors to keep the students on campus, the University of Alabama was still giving its students a chance to return home, and noted in an email to the late afternoon Faculty advised that campus residents must be quarantined or isolated “have the option to return home rather than move to dedicated campus isolation.” The next day, however, the school changed attitudes, stating in a campus-wide memo that “there is consensus among experts that closing a university and sending students home may increase public health risks.”
“It is a reasonable thought that Dr. Birx had. The only flaw is that the colleges have too many students.”
That was hardly a universal answer, and politics continue to vary widely even within the same state. In the state of Iowa, where nearly 700 students and staff tested positive in the first three weeks the students were back on campus, the university allowed students who tested positive for the coronavirus to visit their parents starting Sunday To travel home. The University of Iowa has since announced that it will quarantine campus residents in a “designated area”.
Resistance to more aggressive policies points to an uncomfortable reality for many of these universities: Many simply haven’t prepared enough quarantine space for all of the students who need it.
“It is a reasonable thought that Dr. Birx had. The only mistake is that the colleges have too many students, ”said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “This is how universities can see that there is no alternative but to send them home.”
Some schools that caught flak for letting students off campus – like Ole Miss – still allowed it after the terrible warning. As of Friday, the student housing guidelines on the website said that students who tested positive had two options: “Temporary relocation to your family home or a designated isolation room on campus.” The quarantine options for Ole Miss students who may have been exposed , seemed to be unchanged.
In an email last week to a faculty member who had concerns about this policy, the university’s dean, Noel Wilkins, wrote, “I hope you will appreciate that we are not empowered to share the location with students at which they must be quarantined or isolated. You are free to live where you want. “
Although the dean’s statement is technically correct – according to health law experts, a university can advise a student to stay on campus but not force them against their will – schools could get around this with support from the state government.
“The state where the university is located has public health powers to require quarantine, including quarantine on campus,” said Lawrence Gostin, faculty director at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at the Georgetown University come through the Health Department.
But without the support of the governor, who has the power to take executive action, health departments in many states cannot issue anything stronger than a directive. In particular, the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa, and Georgia are Republicans and acolytes of President Trump, who publicly despised the advice of his own coronavirus task force.
“I think the main beef works so hard to take one for the proverbial team while your governor and senator are literally upholding theories that put you at risk.”
With regard to the coronavirus, many of these governors have already shown skepticism about public health recommendations that border on contempt. Like Reynolds, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has opposed the advice of the White House’s coronavirus task force to grant a nationwide mask mandate. In Mississippi, Governor Tate Reeves issued a temporary nationwide mask mandate, but he did not wear one when he attended the Republican National Assembly on the crowded White House lawn.
And in Iowa, Reynolds is not alone in her battle against what health professionals call common sense. Last week, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, who is in a close re-election campaign, said she was “skeptical” about the rising infection rate in her state, promoting an debunked conspiracy theory that physicians have a financial incentive to increase COVID-19 numbers .
Some professors are skeptical that government will do much to improve the situation.
“I believe that under Republican leadership, the university is honestly doing the best it can,” said an Iowa State professor who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation. “I think the main beef is working so hard to get one for the proverbial team while your governor and senator are literally upholding theories that put you at risk.”