As cases spike nationally, virus affects campuses that had previously kept it under control


With coronavirus infections spiking nationally and in many regions of the U.S., it’d be a wonder if colleges around the country weren’t also seeing outbreaks. And, in fact, they are, in some cases just two to three weeks before they were planning to largely shut down physically for the Thanksgiving holiday.

In the last 48 hours, several colleges and universities announced plans to shift to remote learning as cases mount.

Wheaton College. The Massachusetts private college said Thursday it was experiencing its “first spike in COVID-19 cases” after what officials described as an “amazing semester on campus.” The college’s latest round of tests found 13 people (12 students) to be positive for the virus, the most since testing began in August.

Wheaton officials said the campus would shift to grab-and-go dining immediately and to remote learning starting today. The modified quarantine means that nonresidential students must stay off the campus and students can leave their rooms only to pick up food, go to the bathroom, work scheduled shifts off campus, get tested for COVID or for a medical appointment.

Reversals in Colleges’ Fall 2020 Reopening Plans

Scores of colleges and universities have in recent weeks changed the plans they set last spring for reopening their physical campuses this fall. This tracker and searchable database shows how those changes have unfolded over time.

View Inside Higher Ed’s Live Data Tracker »

Lincoln College, in Illinois, said it would shift to remote learning two weeks earlier than planned given rising cases in the surrounding communities. Lincoln said it had 11 active COVID cases and growing numbers of people in quarantine.

“In the past 24 hours, an increasing number of our campus population were moved to quarantine,” President David Gerlach said. “Despite having high compliance among faculty, staff and students in following safety protocols, the data presents an untenable situation.”

He added, “The decision to move online for the remainder of the fall semester was not taken lightly. Our students achieve higher levels of success when we can operate in person, providing engagement that is critical to student learning. However, pivoting our plans to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus further is essential in safeguarding our campus community.”

Westfield State University. Administrators at the Massachusetts public institution on Wednesday said that new testing had found 27 positive student cases from among 621 tests, prompting a “temporary curtailment plan.” Only online courses will be held for the foreseeable future, and on-ground activities will be canceled or moved to a remote format. Officials also imposed a limited shelter-in-place order to create what they called a campus “bubble.”

Westfield State’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that of its 63 total positive cases found since testing began, 55 had come in the last seven days.

Mercyhurst College. The private college in western Pennsylvania announced that it had identified a second cluster of cases, bringing its total number of positive results to 54 among students and five among employees. Those cases make up a sizable majority of the 71 student cases and seven employee cases it has seen since testing began in late July.

Erie News Now reported that Mercyhurst would immediately shift to virtual learning through next Wednesday and restrict movement on the campus.

Monmouth College. The Illinois independent college said it would enter a “cooldown period” between next Monday and the end of the semester, Nov. 24. Most classes will be held virtually during that time.

Those aren’t the only colleges seeing upticks in COVID-19 cases.

The University of Wyoming said Thursday that like its state, the institution is “contending with a continuing increase in cases of COVID-19 among its students and employees.” University officials said the 239 active cases among students (mostly off-campus) and employees were the largest number since the pandemic began, and come at a delicate time.

“At this point, we aren’t imposing a broad shelter-in-place directive but, with just two and a half weeks before Thanksgiving break, it’s a crucial time for everyone to buckle down and do everything we can to limit further spread of the virus,” said Ed Seidel, the university’s president. “We’re making tremendous efforts to keep our campus open and maintain some in-person instruction to the highest level possible, but those efforts are effective only to the extent that people follow our policies. We are especially concerned that some students could contract the virus but not have symptoms and, if not sheltering in place and following all the protocols established to limit the spread of the virus, could take it home to their families at Thanksgiving.”

Officials at Bates College also expressed “deepening concern” about an uptick in cases there, reflecting a sharp rise in much of Maine.

Joshua McIntosh, vice president for campus life, said the institution had seen five new student cases and one new employee case in the last week, with more results from this week’s testing still to come. The cases do not appear to be linked, suggesting “that as Maine cases increase, so does our students’ risk of exposure to COVID-19 through off-campus activities.”

Several other institutions that had been planning to bring students back to campus for in-person instruction have abandoned those plans, choosing to join other colleges and universities that had long planned to shift to remote learning after Thanksgiving.

Capital University, in Ohio, said Thursday that it would switch to remote learning after the Thanksgiving break. The university said it would keep residence halls open through the end of the semester and in fact encouraged students to “consider remaining in university housing during the Thanksgiving break based on guidance from local and national health agencies. Holiday-related travel and associated gatherings increases the likelihood of contracting and spreading the virus,” university officials said.

And the University of Maryland at College Park announced Thursday that it too would pivot entirely to remote instruction after Thanksgiving. President Darryll J. Pines cited rising cases in the state and nationally for the change in plans.

“Like many of you, I wish for a return to normalcy for our university, including the full resumption of in-person classes and extracurricular activities. Yet this virus continues to demand vigilance, patience and perseverance. I believe the actions outlined above are prudent, data-driven, and in the best interests of our university community,” Pines wrote.

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