Marisa Hardwick isn’t surprised there are now more than twice as many cases of COVID-19 on the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus than previously predicted by university researchers.
Hardwick is a senior at the U of I studying kinesiology. She’s also a resident advisor in a campus dormitory.
“The type of school this is, and the community that it is — it’s not a quiet school, you know. It’s known for being a party location,” Hardwick says.
While Hardwick is impressed by the U of I’s massive testing program, she believes university staff could have done more to predict student behavior on campus, and how that might contribute to spread of the virus.
The U of I has one of the most comprehensive COVID-19 testing programs of any university or college in the country. In order to access campus buildings, students, staff and faculty are required to get tested at least once a week for COVID-19, using a saliva test created by U of I researchers. Undergraduates must get tested twice per week. There are currently about 35,000 students living in the Champaign-Urbana campus area, and more than 13,000 staff and faculty members working at the campus, according to a university spokesperson.
U of I researchers initially projected that there would be about 700 cases on campus by Thanksgiving break, when students will leave for the semester. As of Sept. 21, there were about 2,000 confirmed cases on the Urbana campus.
U of I officials blame the surge in new cases earlier this month on student behavior. They reported that some students who tested positive for the virus were hosting or going to large parties, and some didn’t cooperate with contact tracers. (The U of I has so far suspended at least eight students and one fraternity house for breaking COVID-19 rules.)
But Hardwick says placing all the blame on students isn’t entirely fair.
“Honestly, they should have planned for people to break the rules. Because, I mean, it’s just kind of part of what happens at this age group. Like, they want to do what they want to do,” she says.
Kathryn Clancy, an anthropology professor at the U of I, wishes the campus had not opened at all. She is one of several professors who have expressed concerns about the university’s reopening plan. Clancy says the university could have found a way to open solely for the students without safe or stable housing to pursue their studies remotely.
Clancy says public health safety measures, like wearing a mask for long periods of time, and keeping your distance from peers, is difficult guidance for most students to follow.
“We made them think they were going to come here and have maybe not a normal campus experience, but still a desirable campus experience, when what we really need them to do is so much more challenging and mentally taxing and distressing than what they could actually do,” Clancy says.
Melissa Littlefield, an English professor at the U of I, says what the university has done is essentially “a massive unethical human experiment.” She says welcoming thousands of students back has flooded both the campus and the broader Champaign-Urbana community with the virus. Both Clancy and Littlefield say it’s also unfair that the U of I’s testing resources have so far been limited to students or employees of the university.
“I didn’t know (people who aren’t students or employees) didn’t have access to the testing facilities, which would be a huge game changer for this community,” says Hardwick, the U of I senior. “There’s a lot of low-income communities in Champaign. So I think that would be helpful, especially if it was free to them.”
U of I officials say they hope to expand testing access to residents of Champaign-Urbana in the coming weeks. Officials also say there is no evidence that U of I students have infected people outside the immediate campus community.
“I think the belief that you could control a virus that the United States on the whole has not been able to control, that the world has not been able to control — it’s just an outrageous proposition,” Littlefield says.
Earlier this month, U of I officials temporarily restricted student movement to curb the spread of the virus. Daily case numbers have declined since their peak several weeks ago, but total case counts remain high compared to other universities and colleges nationwide.
Still, U of I officials remain confident in their testing program.
U of I epidemiologist Rebecca Lee Smith said during a faculty Senate meeting earlier this month that the campus’ testing program is the envy of other universities, who she says are testing mostly symptomatic people.
“The majority of our cases are asymptomatic. So the number of cases we have is the iceberg. They have the tip,” Smith said.
While some students are taking in-person classes at the U of I, Hardwick says she has an entirely online course load this semester. While she’s impressed with what the university has done to test students and staff, she’s still worried about getting sick.
Yet, she says she’s happy to be back on campus, even though her family worries about her safety.
“I felt like I needed to get away from home. I needed to get that social interaction, even if it’s just with a few people at a time instead of in a big setting,” Hardwick says. “I think it’s beneficial, definitely good for the mental health.”
She also says it’s a privilege to have easy access to COVID-19 testing.
Testing at Illinois State University
About an hour’s drive away from the U of I is another public university, which has taken a different approach to testing on its campus.
Since it reopened in mid-August, Illinois State University has reported about 1,400 positive COVID-19 test results on its campus in Normal. At least 1,300 of those test results are unique student cases among the roughly 18,000 students living in the campus area this semester.
Unlike the U of I, COVID-19 testing at ISU is still largely optional. The university announced last week that it will require students to get tested soon, but it’s unclear when or how that will happen.
The decision comes after employees, students and community members criticized and questioned ISU’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy. Among those, Sue Rovens, who works in the university’s library, doesn’t believe the university is doing enough to protect students and employees from the virus.
“I think the ISU administration kind of missed the ball on this one. They keep saying that they’re watching and waiting,” Rovens says. “It should never have gotten to this point.”
Rovens opposed bringing students back to campus. She says the danger of COVID-19’s spread isn’t limited to students — that the whole Bloomington-Normal community is at risk because of what happens on the college campus.
“I know that, financially, it’s important for students to be here and people to get paid,” Rovens says. “But when it comes to life and death and sickness, that has to be priority — above money, above contracts, above everything else.”
Rovens says Bloomington-Normal landlords are equally at fault. She says a lot of students might not be here if they weren’t strapped with lease agreements they couldn’t get out of.
That’s what happened to ISU junior Mary Kloser. She says she only returned because she signed a lease for her off-campus apartment about a year in advance. Kloser says she and her friends are taking COVID-19 seriously, but some of her classmates aren’t being as careful.
“You still have people being complete idiots… not wearing masks and getting drunk,” Kloser said. “They’re kind of ruining it for everyone else.”
Nicholas Roberts, an ISU transfer student, decided not to return this semester — in part because he’s not a fan of online learning, but also because he didn’t feel the university was doing enough to curb the spread of COVID-19. He says student behavior is exacerbating the problem.
“I wouldn’t say they’re in denial about the things that are going on, because I’m sure they’re well aware,” Roberts said. “I think that they’re just not necessarily putting other people’s concerns before their own.”
Freshman Eduardo Monk is one of the nearly 3,800 students living in a dorm at ISU. Monk says he’s grateful to be on campus and having a semi-normal college experience, but he wishes his classes were in-person instead of online.
Monk says he’s careful about mask-wearing and social distancing. Still, he doesn’t think college students have much to worry about if they do get the coronavirus.
“Really, I’m not going to limit myself a whole lot. Again, I can’t put my whole entire life on pause. There’s a million more things I could die from just stepping outside my door.”
ISU president Larry Dietz argues most students are following the rules — and the university’s COVID-19 numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“The truth is, many state universities don’t test nearly as much as Illinois State, and don’t transparently report positive cases as does ISU,” Dietz said in his recent State of the University address. “Other universities test so often that their positivity rates skew lower through simple division.”
Sarah Cobey, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, says college and university campuses need to test students and staff every few days to catch the virus before it can spread.
Without that kind of systematic surveillance testing, she says you can’t really tell how many people are infected. But few campuses are conducting testing at that scale.
She says reopening a campus without systematic surveillance testing is “deeply problematic.”
“To be fair, it is also the model for basically every state and other large institution I know, which is: allow testing, report those test results, but not report those test results or even enable testing in the way that allows us to understand trends in transmission really well. So, yeah, I mean it’s unquestionably risky.”
Cobey says the COVID-19 testing being conducted at the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus “is some of the best surveillance that’s happening in the country.”
While the U of I has done the best job she’s seen of any university that has so far attempted in-person instruction during the pandemic, Cobey says the institution could have better estimated the risks of transmission, even with its mass testing program.
“I think a lot of boxes had to be checked, you know, to do this safely. And I don’t think any university has really checked all of them,” Cobey says.
In general, Cobey says universities and colleges haven’t fully considered the magnitude of the risk that they’re taking on by welcoming students back to campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think had they thought through some of these outcomes in a more quantitative way before bringing people back to campus, they would have decided that it was absolutely not worth the risk.”
WGLT student reporter Catrina Petersen contributed to this report.
Lee Gaines is a reporter with Illinois Public Media.
Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT.