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How Colleges React To Coronavirus Outbreaks On Campuses

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Across the country, colleges are seeing alarming spikes in coronavirus cases. That includes campuses in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Ames, Iowa, and Chico, Calif. And this week, we're seeing how colleges are reacting. Some have asked students to shelter in place in their dorms. Others have sent students home just weeks after their arrival. NPR's Elissa Nadworny is on a road trip to see how colleges and their students are adapting to the pandemic. She joins us now from the quad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Hi, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hello.

PFEIFFER: As I understand it, earlier this week at the very Illinois campus you're on, the chancellor announced a two-week lockdown because of rising cases. What's the current situation there?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So we initially came here to see the renowned mass testing program on campus. So students and staff are tested twice a week here. They're running between 10,000 and 15,000 tests a day. At time, that's 2% of all testing in the U.S. But this week, we're seeing evidence that testing alone - it's not enough. Cases here are higher than they expected.

PFEIFFER: And that's not an uncommon story all over the country. Could you give us the bigger national picture?

NADWORNY: So about more than 20% of four-year colleges started the semester in person. Many are big public universities, so we're talking about tens of thousands of students. And these openings are seeding the spread of the virus. Iowa has emerged as a big hotspot. That's driven by students at Iowa State and the University of Iowa. You know, this surge has put campuses in a bind because if they send students home, that's potentially spreading the virus further. But having students on campus is problematic, too.

PFEIFFER: Do schools know what's behind these high case numbers? I'm thinking, for example, of some party crackdowns have been happening.

NADWORNY: Well, at the University of Illinois, the school says some students are finding out they're positive, and they're not doing anything different. They're not isolating. And in some cases, they're going to parties, and they're hosting parties with the positive diagnosis. And I talked to freshman Noelle Johnson, who says she's disappointed, but she's not surprised about this.

NOELLE JOHNSON: Like, when I came to U of I, I knew it was, like, known as a party school. So I knew that just because we were going to be testing a lot didn't mean that they were going to stop partying. It's just - the system can't work if the people aren't working with it.

NADWORNY: The university says it's mass testing allowed them to catch this before it becomes a crisis. Other universities who aren't testing as rigorously and they're only testing when students get sick, they don't even know kind of the scope of outbreak on their campuses. So Illinois is hoping by having all this real-time data, they can contain theirs.

PFEIFFER: And as we've said, they also had this two-week lockdown. What do they hope will change in that time?

NADWORNY: Well, they need students to follow the rules. So like many colleges, they're cracking down on students who don't. The university says they've already disciplined about 100 students and organizations for behavior, including suspending a fraternity. But I should say we've talked to so many students who are taking this seriously. They're masking. They're not going to parties. The thing with this virus is all it takes is a handful of students breaking the rules to cause this thing to spread on campus, and we're heading into a long weekend.

PFEIFFER: So these crackdowns as punitive approach, any sense that that will work?

NADWORNY: Well, the day after they announced these suspensions, we went to the local health department, where contact tracers are reaching out to students who tested positive. They're now very clear about what happens if students screen their calls or they don't get a call back. Here's what we heard.

SHELBY DORSEY: Hi. My name is Shelby Dorsey (ph). I'm calling from Champaign-Urbana public health district. Make sure you call us back. You may be reported to U of I administration, and disciplinary action might follow. Thank you. Have a good day.

NADWORNY: So they say they're already seeing more students returning their calls. But the social science on this isn't promising. You know, many public health officials say blaming and shaming doesn't work. So it's not clear what will work.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who covers higher ed. Thank you, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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