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Coronavirus Outbreaks Linked to Fraternity Houses Are a Warning for College Campuses

8 minute read

Recent coronavirus outbreaks have been linked to fraternities at universities in Washington, California and Mississippi, and experts say it’s an example of what’s to come as many colleges reopen for in-person classes beginning in August.

At least 136 fraternity house residents and nine other students at the University of Washington in Seattle had tested positive for COVID-19 as of July 10 in what officials called a “Greek Row outbreak.” It “provides lessons for students as they consider their return to campus this fall,” said Dr. Geoffrey Gottlieb, chair of the university’s Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases.

Officials at the University of California, Berkeley, said Wednesday that a “concerning” spike of 47 new COVID-19 cases among students was linked to the school’s fraternities and sororities. The university is currently planning to open for limited in-person learning, bringing up to 6,500 students back to on-campus housing in August. But this outbreak could change that. “At the rate we are seeing increases in cases, it’s becoming harder to imagine bringing our campus community back in the way we are envisioning,” university officials said.

And at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., city officials linked more than 160 COVID-19 cases among students to off-campus fraternity rush parties in June.

“There’s a substantial risk of similar outbreaks occurring at other universities and colleges,” says David Hamer, a Boston University professor of global health and medicine and a specialist in infectious diseases, who is on the university’s campus reopening team. “There are many schools that are planning a multi-layered strategy to try to limit outbreaks and either identify them early or basically try and prevent them from happening. Whether they’ll be successful is another story.”

He and other public health experts are hoping that plans for testing and contact tracing will mitigate the spread, but safely reopening campuses will also depend on students buying in to fundamental changes to college life.

“We can take steps to lower the risk and reduce spread and hopefully prevent big epidemics from happening, but we are going to have cases like this pop up,” says Crystal Watson, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and one of the authors of a planning guide on reopening universities. “College, if we do bring people back in person, is not going to look the same as it has in the past.”

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A database compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that most colleges (57%) plan to resume in-person learning in the fall, and 29% are pursuing a mix of online and in-person classes. Just 9% of colleges, including Harvard and the 23 schools within the California State University system, are moving entirely to remote learning. Many schools have yet to decide how they’ll handle the upcoming academic year, but whatever they decide, plenty of people are sure to be unhappy with the plans.

As new outbreaks occur in many parts of the country, and as more young people test positive for COVID-19, some faculty and staff wonder if it’s safe to return to in-person instruction. But many students whose schools have opted for remote learning are frustrated that they’ll be paying the same tuition for a fraction of the college experience. And many colleges, facing an ongoing economic crisis, have their own financial incentives to resume life on campus.

Experts point to the recent university outbreaks as evidence that even the best-laid plans will not prevent the virus from spreading on campus when the fall semester begins, and some say they’re proof that colleges should not reopen.

“The scientific evidence tells us that COVID-19 is a dangerous disease and it’s one that we don’t understand very well yet,” says Shweta Bansal, an associate professor of biology at Georgetown University who studies infectious disease ecology. “We don’t, in particular, understand who is at risk for severe outcomes. And this virus doesn’t appreciate our value for learning and knowledge, and nor is it sympathetic to our economic distress as universities.”

Changes on campus

Before the outbreak at the University of Washington, some fraternity houses over the summer had limited their residential capacity by up to 50%, with about 1,000 students living in 25 fraternity houses. But Gottlieb said those measures weren’t sufficient if students weren’t also wearing face masks, keeping their distance from each other and washing their hands regularly. All fraternity residents have now been asked to self-quarantine in their frat houses.

“My sense is all students want to return to some sense of normalcy, so I urge all of us to follow public health guidelines so we can do just that,” Gottlieb said in a statement.

Officials at UC Berkeley said the majority of the new COVID-19 cases “stem from a series of recent parties” connected to fraternities and sororities. “Generally, these infections are directly related to social events where students have not followed basic safety measures such as physical distancing, wearing face coverings, limiting event size, and gathering outside,” university officials wrote.

It’s not just fraternities. A bar near Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., was linked to 107 COVID-19 cases as of June 29. All those infected were between the ages of 16 and 28. And several universities that recently brought football players back to campus for practice have seen outbreaks.

While colleges can enforce certain safety changes on campus — adding dividers between library desks, limiting the number of students assigned to each dorm room, requiring masks in classrooms, only serving takeout in dining halls—they have little to no control over how students behave in group living situations and when they’re socializing. It has long been difficult for colleges to prevent harmful behaviors, from binge drinking to hazing.

In order to recognize potential outbreaks and prevent them from spreading on campus, Hamer, at Boston University, says colleges need to test students, faculty and staff frequently, depending on their level of risk—potentially testing students living in dorms and fraternities several times per week. And they will need to implement contact tracing and isolate those who are infected, he says. To reduce congestion, Boston University, which is reopening for in-person learning in August, is limiting seating in dining halls, dividing students into groups to rotate between in-person and remote classes, prohibiting overnight guests in on-campus housing and asking students to create schedules to limit the number of students in a shared dorm bathroom at one time.

Watson says indoor spaces where people could gather in close proximity to each other—large classrooms, dorms and locker rooms—deserve special attention. In the reopening guide for universities, Watson recommended that universities cap in-person classes at 50 students, redesign dining halls, prepare to shut down dorms that are the site of outbreaks, and consider closing fraternities and sororities in the event of an outbreak or a failure to follow health guidelines.

“I’m going to be optimistic and say that college students can be aware of these things and, in large part, follow the rules, but it’s going to be up to everyone on campus to make sure that college life continues to be safe,” she says. “And if it’s not, then we may need to shut it down.”

Hamer says it will be most difficult to prevent a “super-spreader event,” where one infected person attends a house party or goes to a bar, for example, and leads to many others being infected.

At Boston University, Hamer says officials are planning to designate student ambassadors who will encourage their peers to socially distance, wear masks and avoid large gatherings. Many other universities have asked students to sign contracts agreeing to follow safety guidelines. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, that contract includes an agreement “to refrain from organizing, hosting, or attending events, parties, or other social gatherings off-campus.”

Georgetown, where Bansal teaches, is offering all classes online this semester but allowing about 2,000 students to come back to campus, where they will live in dorm rooms without roommates and be allowed to attend some classes in person. If the recent outbreaks teach students to be more cautious and responsible, she says, “that’s a win.”

But Bansal says that schools need to share the responsibility of keeping students and staff safe.

“It seems that many universities are inviting students back to campus with this promise of the college experience, quote-unquote, and then planning on shifting all the expectations to be safe on the students,” she says. “At the heart of that experience is socializing, and unfortunately, there’s no safe way for universities to provide that experience currently.”

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com