The experience of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is instructive. The university, with nearly 30,000 students, started classes Aug. 10. By Monday, 177 students had been isolated after testing positive for the coronavirus and another 349 were in quarantine because of possible exposure. The university had a strict mask mandate and asked students to practice social distancing; residence halls were reduced to less than 60 percent capacity; and fewer than 30 percent of total classroom seats were filled. But, partly due to social gatherings of students, infections soared; the first week, the campus health clinic saw the test positivity rate rise from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent.
On Monday, the university abruptly switched to online classes only. Mimi Chapman, the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty chair, told NPR after the announcement that the university had some of the best public health communications staff in the country. “If we can’t bring those resources to bear in the way that we did with a more successful result,” she said, “I think it should give every other large public university in the country pause before going forward.”
Similar reversals have occurred at Notre Dame and Michigan State. Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, said, “The virus is a formidable foe. For the past week, it has been winning.” Indeed, no one should lose sight of the facts: Without a vaccine or therapy, the virus is relentless and opportunistic; people spread it when they congregate. The infection of a relative few students, perhaps from partying, can disrupt an entire institution. We don’t think college students are going to stop congregating, whether they are on or off campus. But young people must take on board the lesson that they are not immune.
Fully remote instruction is not realistic. Science students need to conduct labs and clinics in person. Testing, and more testing, offers one important strategy for schools that must proceed. If students can be screened often enough to detect and isolate those who are sick, there is a chance others on campus can do their best learning in good health. But all schools — from kindergarten through graduate programs — are woven into the society they serve, so they are threatened by the failure of the United States to control the virus. Only a better job of fighting the pandemic will enable schools to do a better job of educating.