College Outbreaks Are The New COVID Hotspots

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
College Outbreaks Are The New COVID Hotspots
Christopher Murray/EyeEm/Getty

Parenting is never easy—from the zombie trance of the early newborn days straight through to your dying day, you worry about your kids. You worry when they’re toddlers that they’ll choke or fall down the stairs and you worry when they’re in their 30s and have kids of their own.

And during a pandemic, there’s a whole new set of worries—especially for parents of older kids.

Those of us with littles have it a bit easier this year, as they can’t really get anywhere without us and have no money of their own and still need us to help them tie their shoes and get their snacks. We can control their exposure to COVID-19 far easier than parents of high school and college-aged kids can. We can say no, you can’t go to that party. Or no, you can’t go to that friend’s house when our kids are eight.

When they’re 18 though? It’s a new ball game—and a dangerous one at that.

Because as many experts predicted, college campuses are the new COVID-19 hotspots, and, if you remember the haze of your college days like I do, you probably aren’t surprised.

College kids are technically adults, mostly responsible for themselves and their own safety. They are supposed to make good choices and be safe and follow rules—like wearing a mask and social distancing, for example.

But college kids are still kids in lots of ways, just dipping their toes into the freedom of a life without curfews and their parents’ watchful eyes nagging them to go to bed or wash their hands or eat a good breakfast.

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Kids who, when faced with the choice of either missing a party because it’s not safe to congregate at a beer-soaked frat house when there’s a pandemic ravaging the world, or going to said frat party because—well, we all know why… often choose the latter.

Kids who are packed like sardines into tiny dorm rooms and share communal bathrooms and showers.

Kids who might, despite loving the freedom that college provides, still be a tad homesick and rely on closeness with friends to get through hard days.

Kids who dreamed of what college would be like, and when told to “stay in your dorm rooms and take classes online” rather than sprawling all over campus, grabbing lunch in the dining hall, and meeting up at the campus coffee shop after a lecture respond with, “Wait. That’s not how this is supposed to go.”

Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, is one example of what happens when a college campus crashes with COVID-19. The New York Times reports that the university’s fall start is not going well.

“Within days, students were complaining that they couldn’t get coronavirus tests or were bumping into people who were supposed to be in isolation,” the article says. “Undergraduates were jamming sidewalks and downtown bars, masks hanging below their chins, never mind the city’s mask mandate.”

Thanks, college kids! (*screams into a pillow.)

And it’s not just Iowa City.

The article goes on to say that “203 counties in the country where students comprise at least 10 percent of the population, about half experienced their worst weeks of the pandemic since Aug. 1. In about half of those, figures showed the number of new infections is peaking right now.”

Brazos County, TX, home of Texas A&M University—hotspot.

Pitt County, NC, home of East Carolina University—hotspot.

McLean County, IL, home of Illinois State University—hotspot.

And, you guessed it—Iowa City. Where swarms of kids (who are technically adults) are packing bars and foregoing mask regulations, and, as a result, where the numbers are abysmal.

“Over the past two weeks, Iowa City’s metro area added the fourth-most cases per capita in the country. The university has recorded more than 1,400 cases for the semester,” The New York Times reports.

But here’s the kicker—the number of deaths hasn’t gone up. In fact, I’d bet a lot of these college students don’t even get gravely ill because they’re young and generally have stronger immune systems. But what they are doing is furthering the spread of this virus throughout their college community and therefore the nation. What they are doing is continuously putting others at risk—others who may not have the same 18, 19, 20-year old body that can party all night and wake up and hit the gym the next day. What they are doing is ensuring that COVID-19 maintains its stronghold on our economy and our nation so that other kids—kids like mine—can’t go back to school.

And the rest of Iowa City is learning, unfortunately, what exactly it means to be a “hotspot.”

“The rise in local case counts reverberated at the county’s community college, which decided to start its fall semester with continued online instruction,” The New York Times article reports. “Iowa City’s K-12 schools followed suit, which also meant canceling extracurricular activities, including sports, until students come back to the classroom in person.”

And stories like these—of frat parties and sorority parties and packed bars and groups of young people completely disregarding COVID-19 guidelines aren’t unique to Iowa City. The UW Madison campus is just as bad, forcing the university to take serious steps to try to stop the spread.

“Unfortunately, too many students have chosen to host or participate in social gatherings that seem to demonstrate a high disregard for the seriousness of this virus and the risk to our entire community,” UW Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said recently, while giving an order that students “severely limit in-person interactions and stay in their residences except for essential activities” effective immediately and lasting until at least September 21.

This mandate comes after a spike from an average of 5.7% positive rate to 22.5% on Monday on the UW Madison campus.Some college kids, however, say they aren’t entirely to blame. A student-run newspaper out of Notre Dame called The Observer recently published a piece that spun this issue around and put it on the administration instead. Or at least called them out for being equally responsible.“The blame for this does not lie with just one party. We—as students, faculty, staff and administrators—need to share responsibility for the outbreak on our hands,” the editorial said, continuing on to cite “flaws in testing, contact tracing and isolation and inefficient quarantine accommodations” as problematic, and evidence that the school isn’t doing enough.“The University administration has largely blamed the COVID-19 outbreak on students attending off-campus parties,” the impassioned piece goes on to say. “While this isn’t entirely misplaced, it has been used to deflect responsibility from the very administrations that insisted they were prepared for us to return to campus. Clearly, they were not.”They have a point. This is on all of us. School administrators, faculty, and staff need to make sacrifices, be a little uncomfortable, and learn to adapt just as much as students do. But all-night frat parties and overcrowded bars aren’t helping either.Listen, college kids. I’m heartbroken for you. I truly am. My college years were some of the best times of my life. This isn’t fair. But none of us are going to get the life back that we truly want if we don’t all make some sacrifices right now. We need you to make better choices. You aren’t kids anymore, so it’s on you to do the right thing.

You want to be out from under your parents’ thumb? You want the freedom to make your own decisions and be taken seriously and not be treated like a kid? Well, you can start by putting your damn mask on and making at least an attempt to social distance. I know it ruins your game a little. It’s hard to flirt with the hot guy or girl from Calc 101 with a mask on, from six feet away. Know what’s worse though? Having to attend college online, seeing no friends ever, and infecting your parents and grandparents with the coronavirus.

And if your college or university isn’t doing everything in their power to fight COVID-19, speak up. Because as much as it sucks to sit home on Friday and Saturday nights, it sucks even more to know that your school doesn’t have your back.

Finally, parents—if you’re paying tuition for one of these kids pictured in the above tweet, with their mask hanging on like a chin strip while they crowd around a bar, you need to come collect your baby and remind them that their actions have consequences. And also, the internet is forever.

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