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Are Lockdowns At Colleges Working?


This week, University of Michigan students were put on lockdown after a surge of coronavirus cases on campus. It's a reminder of the challenges colleges have faced in reopening during the pandemic. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has visited more than a dozen colleges this fall, and she joins us now.

Hello, Elissa.


MOSLEY: So catch us up on what happened at the University of Michigan this week.

NADWORNY: So this week, local health officials issued a two-week emergency stay-in-place order to students at the university. There are exceptions, including getting food and going to class. Athletics are also excluded from the order. And we've seen these two-week lockdowns at a number of schools this fall. When cases get out of control, universities or, in this case, local health departments have asked students to hunker down and limit all nonessential activities. In some places, classes will switch online from in person.

And it's often worked. At places that have done it, like the University of Illinois, students buckled down for two weeks, and daily case numbers went down. But what's interesting about what happened at the University of Michigan is that the order came from local health officials not the university, which highlights tensions this fall between colleges and the communities they're in. You know, often the decision to open in person is out of the hands of a local health department, but they are the ones who kind of clean up the mess when things go awry.

MOSLEY: Yeah, I can imagine that puts the health department in a really tough spot.

NADWORNY: Absolutely. I saw this play out at the University of Colorado Boulder. The local health department there issued strict restrictions on college-aged residents after the cases continued to rise on campus. It was a really unpopular decision. Chana Goussetis, a Boulder County Public Health official, said she and her co-workers actually got hate mail over this. But she explained that their decision to target campus spread, you know - there were stakes there.

CHANA GOUSSETIS: What we're afraid of is that it spreads to our more vulnerable residents. They get really sick. They have to be hospitalized. Our hospital can't manage the vast, you know - the amount of cases that there are. And then other people don't get the care they need, or those people don't get the care they need, and they die.

MOSLEY: Well, Elissa, are those fears founded? I mean, do we know if cases on college campuses have spread to local communities?

NADWORNY: Well, there has been some research showing a link between college reopenings and rising cases nearby. A recent study estimated college opening in person led to about 3,000 new cases a day nationwide. Another recent paper traces positive college student clusters to nearby nursing home deaths. And all of this is especially worrisome as colleges approach that Thanksgiving break. For a number of campuses, that's when they plan to end the semester.

MOSLEY: Do those colleges have an exit strategy for the end of the semester? It actually seems like students could take the virus home with them if campus spread isn't under control.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Some colleges are planning more robust testing ahead of the holidays, so that's one option. You test as many students as you can before they leave campus, but that's expensive. A recent NPR analysis found that most U.S. colleges have not been doing robust testing for their students this fall, so it's unclear if it'll change now. Another option is to do those lockdowns, like the one at the University of Michigan, before students leave campus. You know, how students are sent home is just another thing that local health departments don't really have a lot of say in. And yet, of course, they'll be the ones dealing with the fallout if it, you know - if it goes wrong.

MOSLEY: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who covers higher ed.

Elissa, thank you so much.

NADWORNY: Hey; thank you.


Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.