The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

NEW YORK – With coronavirus cases out of control on some college campuses, one thing has become abundantly clear: There is no such thing as a safe, risk-free return to campus.

So why keep up this useless, lose-lose proposition and welcome students back at all, only to force them into quarantine or send them home? Why not recognize instead that college life on many four-year campuses, as we have known it, is officially impossible for now?

“It’s not like we didn’t know this kind of thing would happen when students left colleges for spring break and spread Covid across the country,” said Christopher Marsicano, an assistant professor who spent the summer collecting data and tracking college responses to the pandemic at the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College in North Carolina.

A reckoning finally happened on Thursday, when the State University of New York at Oneonta became the first public university in that state to announce it would send all students home and shut down for the rest of the semester. Some 507 students had tested positive at the rural school, and 117 were isolating on campus, college data show.

The shutdown came as coronavirus reaches staggering heights at large public universities, and not all have been transparent in letting students and faculty know details of major outbreaks: more than a thousand at the University of Iowa, nearly 800 at the University of Georgia, 1,200 at the University of Alabama.

The shutdown came as coronavirus reaches staggering heights at large public universities, and not all have been transparent in letting students and faculty know details of major outbreaks: more than a thousand at the University of Iowa, nearly 800 at the University of Georgia, 1,200 at the University of Alabama.

On Thursday, Indiana University officials recommended closing all fraternity and sorority houses in Bloomington due to the “increasingly alarming” positive test result rate. Even the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which had developed its own intensive testing program, cannot conquer the virus: More than 800 students are now quarantining on and off campus.

At SUNY Oneonta, President Barbara Jean Morris posted a letter of apology to students. “While this is sudden news and something no one wanted, the risk to our campus and Oneonta community is too great,” the letter said.

Related: Welcome to college: the virus is winning, so please quarantine or go home

It was hardly sudden, though. The campus had already been on a two-week pause, shifting all classes online as case numbers burgeoned and New York State officials sent a virus control team of contact tracers and investigators to the town and opened up rapid-testing sites.

The return of students followed a summer during which U.S. colleges promised careful cleanings, enhanced testing protocols and myriad other ways their schools would beat back coronavirus. At the same time, unmasked students were mingling freely in bars, fraternity and sorority houses as the virus began its inevitable spread.

No wonder newly quarantined students and perplexed professors are asking how any campus, despite stringent measures and constant testing, thinks it could beat back coronavirus.

coronavirus outbreaks
Davidson College Professor Chris Marsicano of the College Crisis Initiative meets with student researchers to discuss their data collection procedures and coronavirus research Credit: Claire Tatum

So what’s with all these misguided reopenings? Was I wrong, I asked Davidson’s Marsicano, in thinking that opening some campuses and bringing students back was a terrible idea?

“You are absolutely right to come down hard,” said Marsicano, who is collecting and disseminating information that he believes should have been compiled months ago by the U.S. Department of Education.

Marsicano updates his site tracking some 3,000 colleges daily, with the help of “a bunch of scrappy 22-year-olds trying to fight back the virus,” he said.

In some cases, institutions opened without even asking students to get tested, then quickly blamed parties, off-campus bars and Greek life for the surge in cases. The finger pointing isn’t doing much to appease students like Mason Zastrow, a junior at Iowa State who wishes he had considered other options before returning to his off-campus apartment in Ames, Iowa – which happens to be one of the fastest-growing hotspots for the virus in the U.S. 

“We opened up just to make sure our students from underserved communities have a chance to get back on campus. So far, it’s working – fingers crossed.”

Emmanuel Lalande, vice president, Benedict College, South Carolina

Zastrow has been in isolation since one of his roommates tested positive for coronavirus and is waiting for his own test results after developing symptoms. Last week, he wrote a letter to the school that went viral, urging that students be sent home and all classes moved online.

“Iowa State should not have come in saying we are confident we will be in person all semester,’’ Zastrow told me.

Over at the University of Iowa, where classes resumed last month, professors and students held a “sickout” this week in protest of the school’s reopening plan as cases soared, with more than 1,100 students testing positive.

Presidents of large public universities have been under enormous pressure to open their campuses and even play football in packed stadiums, although Iowa State backed down this week from letting fans watch games in person. For both political and financial reasons, many schools felt they had no choice but to bring students back, Marsicano told me.

 “It’s not unrealistic to think you will be defunded if you don’t do what state legislatures want,” he said.

Zuleyma Zambrano was set to be first in her family to leave home and attend a four-year college in Portland, Oregon after graduating from Santa Fe High School in New Mexico this spring. Instead, she began college in her living room. Credit: Zuleyma Zambrano

Amid all the bad news, there are some smaller colleges with meticulous approaches they believe will keep students safe, and whose students seem to be carefully following rules. Over at Benedict College in South Carolina, Vice President Emmanuel Lalande hopes that the “Benedict Bubble” will keep coronavirus out. Only about 670 of the college’s 2,247 students are back, and they are following stringent regulations and getting tested frequently.

“We opened up just to make sure our students from underserved communities have a chance to get back on campus,” Lalande told me. “So far, it’s working – fingers crossed.”

There have been no easy answers. Zuleyma Zambrano, an 18-year-old honors student from Santa Fe, New Mexico, looked forward to becoming the first in her family to attend a four-year college; she and her roommate had already discussed who would bring the microwave and who would rent the fridge when they arrived at the University of Portland in Oregon, and her flight was booked.

Then, she was told not to come to campus this fall. Instead, Zambrano began college in her living room, pausing from her remote classes to help her third-grade sister with her homework from time to time.

“Honestly, it’s super disappointing, but I’m grateful the decision was made when it was,” Zambrano said. “Aside from all the expenses, it would be so frustrating to get there and have everything cancelled.”

This story about coronavirus outbreaks on campus was reported by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *