Fighting Covid-19: Can US universities pass test?

The key question is whether students will do their best to comply with restrictions, as reports from five schools show

(NYTIMES) - "SEND HELP" and "FREE US" were written in sticky notes on the windows of a dormitory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as a soundtrack from The Purge movies - a series of dystopian horror films - boomed from an upper floor.

Freshmen in pyjamas and masks darted up and down sidewalks in driving rain, hauling bags of groceries and bottles of alcohol.

Frazzled parents waited in minivans as their children dragged belongings outside to evacuate.

The chaos erupted last month when the university announced a lockdown of two large residence halls, each home to more than 1,000 students, after local officials demanded action amid soaring coronavirus caseloads.

Students were told that they could not leave the building, for any reason, for two weeks - and that those who did would not be allowed back during the quarantine. So they either prepared to hunker down, or fled to their bedrooms back home.

Wisconsin is among a handful of American universities driven by rising infections to try a drastic remedy: asking large numbers of students - sometimes the entire campus - to quarantine for 14 days in their dormitories, apartments or fraternity and sorority houses.

American colleges have become a major source of coronavirus infection in recent weeks.

A New York Times tracking effort has identified more than 178,000 confirmed cases at colleges and universities since the pandemic began. Most have been announced since students returned to campus for the autumn term.

As outbreaks have grown, campuswide quarantines have been tried at institutions large and small, from the sprawling University of Arizona in Tucson, which issued a two-week, shelter-in-place request on Sept 15, to green-lawned Grand Valley State in western Michigan, where students were told to stay in their homes for 14 days starting on Sept 17.

Some schools promised harsh penalties for violators. Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, gave its students an easy way to report one another - the "snitch form" as it is known on campus - and has issued US$250 (S$340) fines.

But other colleges have done little to keep students away from bars and late-night parties.

Their quarantine instructions allowed exceptions for a wide range of activities, including classes, work, medical appointments, grocery shopping and takeouts.

Still, on some campuses, the Hail Mary appears to have worked: Caseloads there have come down.

To find out what life is really like at colleges that tried to squelch socialising and slow the virus' spread, we enlisted journalists from five schools to tell the story.

'We need everyone to do their part' 

Priya Jandu 

In Tucson, Arizona

When some 45,000 students returned to the University of Arizona in late August, officials were clear that it was conditional on compliance: We would have to wear masks in buildings, follow social distancing requirements and use hand sanitiser, which you can find everywhere on campus.

Each week, our president, Mr Robert C. Robbins, gave a news conference, imploring students to follow the rules.

I am here to report: It did not work.

After nearly 600 students tested positive during the week of Sept 6, Mr Robbins announced a "last-ditch effort" to stem the outbreak: a two-week, shelter-in-place recommendation.

"We need everyone to do their part," he said.

Personally, I did not go out much during the 14-day period. My busy workload kept me holed up in my apartment, taking online classes and working on the campus newspaper. But for others, life did not immediately change.

I live off Fourth Avenue, a busy street filled with bars and restaurants near the western edge of campus. On the first weekend after the shelter-in-place request, it looked normal - or at least as normal as it can when people are out eating and drinking during a pandemic.

Closer to campus, University Boulevard was also open and running. If an out-of-towner had walked past Gentle Ben's Brewing or Illegal Pete's, two University of Arizona institutions, they would not have guessed everyone was supposed to be staying home.

Mr Robbins promised "drastic changes" would occur if things did not improve, and they have. Over the past 10 days, the university has reported 42 new positive tests, far below last month's peak.

I am hoping that means we will never have to find out what "drastic changes" he had in mind.

'Use the form'

Haley Johnson

In Peoria, Illinois

Officially, the form on Bradley University's website that allows students to report violations of the school's coronavirus rules is known as the non-compliance report.

But we just call it the "snitch form". You can report students for failing to wear a mask, failing to social distance, failing to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, and failing to cough or sneeze into a tissue or elbow.

There is even an option to upload photographic evidence.

Ratting one another out became more tempting as confirmed cases began rising quickly at our school of 6,000 students in late August.

The test positivity rate soared from less than 3 per cent on Aug 27 to more than 8 per cent a week later and 14 per cent by Sept 10, according to the campus dashboard.

Given that steep climb, and the number of students who were forced to quarantine because of contact tracing, the university ordered a two-week, all-student quarantine starting on Sept 8.

"It is very important students stay put," officials said. They were not kidding. Eight days into quarantine, the university had issued 11 US$250 fines and was considering whether to ban three students from campus and suspend one for the rest of the academic year.

Mr Noah Mollett, 19, a sophomore majoring in theatre arts, said he initially thought that "it's their own grave they're digging" if students did not follow the rules.

"But it spreads," he noted. "When people break the rules, they're hurting other people and ruining other people's experiences."

After someone on his floor tested positive, he sought a test for himself - also positive - and was ordered to isolate for 10 days in a room with three other infected students. After his new roommates invited several people into the apartment, he reported them.

The campus police showed up, took the students' names and made sure the guests left, he said. "My roommates were less than happy," Mr Mollett said. "I was worried they would hurt me and my stuff."

The "snitch form" yields a lot of power, and there is potential for abuse, even false reports.

But combined with the quarantine, there is evidence it might be working. Bradley's test positivity rate reached a peak of 16 per cent on Sept 17 but has since declined significantly.

"I can see why people are scared, but use the form," Mr Mollett said.

"It works."

Climbing caseloads on 'the Hill'

Anna Haynes

In Boulder, Colorado

At the University of Colorado, there is sometimes an "us v them" mindset pitting independent students against those in fraternities and sororities.

That tension has been high this term as University Hill, known around town as "the Hill", has become a hot spot in more ways than one. Home to bars and many of the school's fraternity and sorority houses, it is the place you go to party, pandemic or not.

But it is also the place that helped to drive up the school's coronavirus caseloads, leading Boulder County on Sept 15 to issue a 14-day quarantine notice for every Colorado student.

Officials blamed a major uptick in part on "large off-campus gatherings, particularly among sororities, fraternities and other students living in the Hill neighbourhood".

Things got even stricter on Sept 24, when the county prohibited anyone aged 18 to 22 from gathering.

Although things have improved enough that some in-person classes have resumed and small gatherings are now allowed, I do not know a single healthy person who remained in quarantine.

"I drove past the Hill last night," Ms Delaney Hartmann, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in political science, told me recently, "and there were tonnes of people at restaurants, at the bars, not wearing masks".

She said she was especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, with conditions - including dysautonomia - that result in chronic pain, fatigue and nausea.

"I don't want to blame every single individual who is living on the Hill who is in a sorority or fraternity," she added. "But it is definitely a source of a lot of the outbreaks."

All of this has added to long-simmering tension between Greek students and the rest of campus.

Some fraternity and sorority members "have taken a while to truly understand" the seriousness of Covid-19, Mr Harrison Bolin, president of the Xi chapter of the Christian fraternity Alpha Gamma Omega, acknowledged.

But he said it was unfair to blame Greek students alone. "The administration severely underestimated their ability to manage tens of thousands of college students going through the longest period of isolation and uncertainty in our lives."

'Nobody is wearing a mask'

Nick Moran

In Allendale, Michigan

Life has been very different on the two campuses of Grand Valley State University this autumn.

Those of us who live in Allendale, Michigan, home to about 14,500 students this semester, spent two weeks under a stay-in-place order issued on Sept 16.

It came after the school reported one of the largest-known campus outbreaks in Michigan, with more than 400 confirmed cases.

We were not supposed to leave home - except to go to work, attend classes or religious services, or obtain medical care, groceries or other necessities. The order kept things a bit quieter than usual but many students seemed oblivious.

"I think if they're already partying, they're not really going to stop," said Ms Amelia Goetzinger, 21, a junior mathematics major.

Some 19km away, on the downtown Grand Rapids campus in neighbouring Kent County, some 7,700 students were unaffected by the order, although they are expected to abide by the normal public health restrictions already in place.

To find out how things were different on the downtown campus, I spoke with Mr Michael Vazquez, 21, a senior history major who lives in Grand Rapids.

People there, he said, appeared to be taking the rules more seriously.

"In Kent County, you can't go anywhere or do anything without a mask," he told me. But when he comes to Allendale for his only in-person class, he noted: "Nobody is wearing a mask other than me. It's a little frustrating."

Throughout the two weeks that the order was in place, I did my best to comply. But at night, I could see and hear scattered groups of students moving between houses, with some still wandering the community maskless.

By following the rules, I missed the chance to celebrate my roommate's birthday with friends, and I missed seeing my girlfriend. Two weeks? Felt like an eternity.

'Do I have enough to eat?'

Addison Lathers

In Madison, Wisconsin

Everyone seemed to know it was coming.

It was only our second week of classes but coronavirus caseloads at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were climbing quickly.

Local officials wanted action after 46 separate outbreaks and nearly 1,000 positive cases. In a letter to administrators on Sept 9, Mr Joe Parisi, the Dane County executive, called for students to be sent home. The campus started to worry about a quarantine.

"I was going into my very first college exam," said 18-year-old freshman Noah Cotton, who lived in a dormitory with a major outbreak.

Instead of focusing on his answers, he wondered: "Do I have enough to eat? How am I going to be able to talk to people?"

That night, students began to panic. Everyone bought groceries and alcohol.

At 8.20pm, a university e-mail made it official: Two dormitories, Sellery and Witte, home to 2,200 students, would be quarantined for two weeks starting at 10pm.

"Residents of those halls will be required to remain in their hall during that time or go home," the announcement said. The university shifted classes online, and gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited.

That's when I saw the "SEND HELP" and "FREE US" sticky notes on the windows of Sellery and heard the music from The Purge booming from an open window.

Mr Cotton would later test positive. "It was definitely my floor," he said. "My roommate and I tested positive. The people in the room next to us tested positive. The people down the hall tested positive."

Many people chose to leave campus that night. I watched students hop into Ubers, bound for hotels.

Mr Cotton said he stayed because he did not have much choice. "Most minority students don't have the means to just leave the dorm, to travel, to get an apartment, to feel safe," he said.

The quarantine seemed to do its job, and the lockdown has been lifted. "Due to the actions the university took to contain a rise in cases early in the semester, including robust testing, isolation of positive students, and quarantines, Covid-19 cases have remained low on campus since the third week of September," the university's case-tracking dashboard said last Wednesday.

Everyone is holding his breath to see how long it lasts.