Last Monday, top officials on the White House coronavirus task force issued an urgent warning to governors across the country: Stop sending your COVID-infected college students home to their parents or risk another nationwide surge, just like the one that overwhelmed the South this summer.
So far, the task force’s request for governors to talk to their college presidents appears to have made little difference. By the end of the week, some colleges in the country’s biggest coronavirus hot spots not only were still allowing students to go home after they’d been exposed or infected—they were ordering them to.
“You need to relocate, as soon as possible, to your home or other off-campus location for the duration of your self-isolation period,” said a form letter sent Wednesday from the Office of the Dean at Georgia Southern University to on-campus students who reported being exposed to or infected with the coronavirus. The university even tried to run students in off-campus housing out of town, telling them to “return home to self-isolate as soon as possible,” according to the email, obtained by The Daily Beast.
That lack of containment has had severe consequences. Statesboro, the small town where Georgia Southern is located, registered more than 700 positive coronavirus cases during the last two weeks in August. It was one of the highest per capita rates of increase in any United States metro area during that stretch, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
“I have parents in their seventies visiting me this holiday weekend, and I’m scared to death for them to come to our small little town,” Leticia McGrath, a professor of Spanish at Georgia Southern University for over two decades, told The Daily Beast. “It’s bad.”
In the month since students began traveling back to their college campuses, coronavirus hot zones have migrated with them. Now many of the cities and towns where cases are surging fastest—places like Iowa City, Auburn, Statesboro, and Ames—are college towns. And while lax policies toward containment on and off-campus have created local breeding grounds for the virus, they’re not expected to stay local long, with sick students leaving campus and fall weather increasing viral spread.
“The original sin was inviting the students back to campus,” said Michael Innis-Jimenez, a professor of American studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where more than 2,000 students tested positive for the coronavirus in the last three weeks. “And now it’s going to be very problematic to get them home. I think they finally saw that at the White House.”
Still, the White House response to the virus has been anything but consistent. Last Sunday, the White House coronavirus task force urged Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to issue a statewide mask mandate, noting the state now had the highest number of new infections in the country. The governor publicly disagreed with the proposal. Four days later, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams sided with Reynolds, telling a local news station, “If you try to force people to do something… they will resist you.”
The shifting policies at many universities mirrors the White House response, with colleges scrambling to find on-campus quarantine spaces well after the number of positive cases on their campuses reached into the hundreds.
The offices of the governors of each of these states did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast, and universities did not confirm whether the governors had advised them to change their policies following Monday’s call. They also did not respond to requests for comment about their current policies on whether exposed or infected students should remain on campus.
On Tuesday, a day after the White House urged governors to keep students on campus, the University of Alabama was still giving its students the option to return home, noting in a late afternoon email to faculty that on-campus residents who need to quarantine or isolate “have the option to return home in lieu of moving into dedicated campus isolation.” The next day, though, the school changed its tune, noting in a campus-wide memo that “consensus is building among experts that closing a university and sending students home may increase the public health risk.”
That was hardly a universal response, and policies continue to vary widely even within the same state. At Iowa State, where nearly 700 students and staff tested positive in the first three weeks that students were back on campus, the university was still allowing students who tested positive for the coronavirus to travel home to their parents as of Sunday. The University of Iowa, meanwhile, has indicated it will quarantine on-campus residents in a “designated area.”
Resistance to more aggressive policies points to an uncomfortable reality for many of these universities: Many simply haven’t prepared enough quarantine space for all of the students who may need it.
“It’s a reasonable thought that Dr. Birx had. The only glitch is that colleges have too many students,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “So the universities may find that there’s no alternative but to send them home.”
Some schools that have caught flak for letting students leave campus—like Ole Miss—were still allowing it, even after the dire warning. As of Friday, student housing guidelines on its website still said students who had tested positive had two options: “temporary relocation to your family home or a designated isolation space on campus.” Quarantine options for Ole Miss students who may have been exposed appeared to be unchanged.
In an email last week to a faculty member who had expressed concerns over that policy, university dean Noel Wilkins wrote: “I hope that you will appreciate that we do not have the authority to tell students the location in which they must quarantine or isolate. They have the freedom to live where they wish.”
Although the dean’s statement is technically accurate—according to experts in health law, a university can advise a student to remain on campus but cannot force them against their will—schools could get around that with the support of the state government.
“The state in which the university is situated has public health powers to require quarantine, including quarantining on campus,” said Lawrence Gostin, faculty director at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, noting the order would traditionally come through the public health department.
But without the backing of the governor, who has the authority to put out executive actions, public health departments in many states are powerless to issue anything stronger than a guideline. Notably, the governors of Alabama, Mississippi, Iowa, and Georgia are Republicans and acolytes of President Trump, who has shown public disdain for the advice of his own coronavirus task force.
When it comes to the coronavirus, many of these governors have already displayed a skepticism for public health recommendations bordering on contempt. Like Reynolds, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has defied White House coronavirus task force advice to issue a statewide mask mandate. In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves issued a temporary statewide mask mandate, but when he attended the Republican National Convention on the crowded White House lawn, he was not wearing one.
And in Iowa, Reynolds isn’t alone in her fight against what health experts call common sense. Last week, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who is in a tight re-election campaign, said she was “skeptical” about her state’s rising infection rate, touting a debunked conspiracy theory that doctors have a financial incentive to inflate COVID-19 numbers.
Some professors are skeptical state leadership will do much to make the situation better.
“I feel like honestly the university is doing the best it can under Republican leadership,” said a professor at Iowa State who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retribution. “I think the main beef is working so hard to take one for the proverbial team, all the while having your governor and senator literally perpetuate theories that endanger you.”