Dismayed students at the University of Georgia are sharing pictures of maskless classmates attending Greek life events. The University of Notre Dame suspended classes this week, blaming off-campus partiers for a COVID-19 outbreak. Drake University sent 14 students home, accusing them of violating social distancing guidelines.
As colleges lay out strict new COVID-19 precautions only to quickly pull back from in-person learning, it’s difficult to imagine enough students will follow the rules for the schools to declare their reopenings successful. Not helping matters: increasingly ugly debates over mask use and other safety protocols—once largely confined to retail stores and protests—making their way to packed dorms.
Even if some students follow the rules to the letter, “I think the pressure will be on individuals,” Arnold Monto, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan told The Daily Beast, “because they cannot avoid other individuals who are not doing everything right.”
On Tuesday, eight days after opening its doors, Notre Dame announced a two-week suspension of in-person learning, citing an outbreak of COVID-19 among upperclassmen who lived off campus. The university accused the students of failing to follow distancing measures.
Around the time of the announcement, however, a hoax event was gaining visibility among the student population. “Protest Party,” read the Facebook event. “After the university has released yet another policy excluding off campus students and stifling student life we’ve realized it’s time to make our voices felt. We’ll be having a party at legacy village followed by a walk to the main building to protest the university’s new policies. Kegs will be provided, those wearing masks will be politely asked to leave.”
Students told The Daily Beast they believed the event was a fake, intended to kick up controversy. Still, the apparent anti-mask sentiment mirrors very real feelings across the country.
As dormitories filled up at the University of Georgia, so did social media groups for UGA students. There, the school’s masking policy (required indoors where social distancing of six or more feet is impossible) was in hot contention. On Twitter, UGA students posted screenshots from their student groups, which were full of anti-masking comments.
“No need for masks when you’re six feet away (or at all),” one read, “but hey, if it helps your psyche, wear a hazmat suit.”
“Media WAY over exaggerates numbers!” read another calling for in-person classes, falsely adding, “The number that matters most is that 99.9% of people recover from Covid. People being out of work, the fear and anxiousness that is running rampant is far more damage than this virus. Don’t live in fear folks. It’s not healthy!! 99.9 Remember that number!”
Following the suspension of in-person classes at schools like UNC-Chapel Hill, some students have lambasted university leadership for setting them up to fail.
“Everybody told the university not to reopen, and it was only a matter of time,” Nikhil Rao, a Chapel Hill student government senior adviser, told NBC. A popular meme on a subreddit for Notre Dame students accuses the university of scapegoating partiers to conceal what students characterized as insufficient testing and regulations.
Monto said he saw universities as having more limited liability.
“The universities can only control what they can control. They can evaluate students in dorms and test them. They can make sure that only certain classes meet where distancing can be practiced. They can test on a regular basis, evaluate students who are coming together on a regular basis,” he said.
“They cannot affect social behavior in those who are living off campus housing, who will be interacting with other students. And we know how this virus transmits: it's being in contact with a large number of people.”
That’s a problem when some students, like those mocking “hazmat suits” at UGA or faking “protest parties” at Notre Dame, aren’t keen on masking at all. Some of those comments echo right-wing narratives, which seek to downplay the severity of the virus.
Jasmine Jaffe is the president of Emory University’s College Republicans club. Her university, located in Atlanta, is opting for a mixed in-person and distancing approach. First year students, international students, and those with other circumstances requiring them to be on campus will have their classes in person. Jaffe (a junior) and some of her fellow remote students are still staying in the Atlanta area.
Jaffe said she saw a partisan divide over how her liberal and conservative friends approached COVID-19 precautions.
“The majority of my friend circle are liberal students,” Jaffe told The Daily Beast. “They've been very hesitant to go out to lunch or really just go and explore the Atlanta area, even though we just got back. But some of my conservative friends, we just want to, you know, spend time outside, see each other. We're all young college students, no health concerns. I really don't see any point in not returning to campus.” (Young people, even those without preexisting conditions, have died of COVID-19.)
It’s a rift with the potential to upend colleges’ COVID-19 responses, as well as ruin roommate relationships. Jaffe said she knew of two students—one liberal, one conservative—who were split over their household approach to the virus.
“The liberal friend doesn’t want the conservative friend to go out to restaurants outside, because she’s worried about getting coronavirus,” Jaffe said. “The conservative friend is like, ‘I wear a mask everywhere I go. Also, we are very healthy and young individuals. It’s probably good for us to get coronavirus, in some ways, to get some immunity for a few months before we go back to older family members.’” (In fact, research on post-COVID immunity is still inconclusive, and asymptomatic people can still spread the virus, according to the World Health Organization.)
But the lack of masks isn’t always ideological. Some of it’s been tied to social events typical of college life, including fraternity and sorority events, where people have been photographed wearing masks, but keeping them lowered around their chins, making them effectively useless.
One such gathering took place at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which announced a turn to digital classes on Tuesday, after a COVID-19 outbreak one week into the school year. Members of a UNC-Chapel Hill sorority were filmed apparently hopping house parties in a large unmasked group. In June, the “house mom” for a UNC-Chapel Hill fraternity told NC Policy Watch that when she asked frat members to follow social distancing fuels, they called her a “boomer” and a “bitch.”
A subreddit for UGA students has been a virtual database of masking complaints. “Neighbors throwing a party on a MONDAY during a PANDEMIC,” one user wrote above a meme begging said neighbors to “please shut the fuck up.” (The Redditor did not specify whether the neighbors were students.) A popular post from Sunday showed a large group of sorority applicants participating in the school’s rush week, many of them unmasked. (UGA’s fraternities and sororities are trying to combat the spread of COVID-19 by holding many recruitment events online.)
“It was never going to work,” a Redditor wrote, “this is just confirmation.”
Jaffe, the Emory University College Republicans president, said her current decision to wear a mask indoors, but not outside, where distancing is possible, wasn’t creating much of a stir. But it seemed inevitable that the politics of masking would get even hotter on campus as the party conventions wrap up and campuses with in-person learning become electoral battlegrounds.
“I would say there’s some conflict, nothing too dramatic,” Jaffe said. “But maybe throughout the year, as the election heats up, that might change.”
Even if the election stays cool, the virus might heat up through the school year. After all, experts have long feared what colder weather and flu season might mean for COVID-19 outbreaks.
“If people are in close contact, and even if a percentage of people don't follow the rules, then you're going to have the virus starting to spread,” Monto said.