Columbia University students in New York City Columbia University students in New York City
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Faculty are increasingly sounding the alarm as colleges nationwide struggle to come up with a coronavirus strategy.

Thousands of college students are contemplating whether or not to return for the fall, but the coronavirus may already be awaiting them on campus and testing hurdles may be too high for universities to manage. 

The New York Times surveyed nearly 1,000 institutions of higher education, including every public four-year college in the U.S., plus every Division I private university as well as top research universities, to learn how many had confirmed coronavirus cases. Results showed at least 6,300 cases tied to about 270 colleges over the course of the pandemic. Community colleges were not included in the study. 

There is no standardized national reporting method for coronavirus cases or coronavirus deaths at colleges, and colleges are not required to provide the information. When asked by the Times, some refused to provide information and hundreds did not respond at all. Unless academic institutions self-report information about infections on campuses, the data is not guaranteed to show up in official state or county tallies. This approach also generally excludes people who have permanent off-campus addresses.

Universities have released detailed plans to safely recommence classes, including temperature testing and delaying or canceling sports seasons and other activities with high attendance altogether. However, those measures may not be enough. Testing backlogs have been reported across the country, with results sometimes delayed weeks and allowing potential coronavirus exposures to continue in the interim.  

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Typical student behavior like parties and socializing may also fuel the spread of coronavirus at colleges, which is raising alarms among faculty and workers at campuses across the nation. This week, an open letter from 30 faculty members at UNC Chapel Hill urged students to stay home for the health and safety of everyone. In New York City, the former epicenter of the coronavirus crisis, Columbia University professors have threatened to strike over coronavirus safety issues as students get set to return to campus this fall. 

Administrators have chastised students who are holding large parties, such as occurred at Tulane University in New Orleans. However, some worry that the more backlash students face for having parties or going to bars, the less likely they will be to disclose their behavior. And the self-control of students cannot substitute for building the public-health infrastructure needed to control a disease that spreads easily among people who live in such close proximity. A study conducted by Yale and Harvard researchers found universities would need to test all students every two or three days to control outbreaks. 

The Senate’s newest draft of the coronavirus relief bill includes $16 billion for more testing and contact tracing, much less than the $75 billion put forth by House Democrats, but the Trump administration has opposed the measure and sought to block the funding.