Who’s to blame for campus COVID outbreaks?

August 31, 2020 8:00 am

Iowa lawmakers have banned schools and local governments from requiring masks. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Public health experts have given us a long list of ways we can help prevent the spread of COVID-19.  Unfortunately for Iowa’s universities, students, faculty and college towns, finger-pointing has yet to be proven effective at warding off infections.

Index fingers are getting a lot of exercise on college campuses, nevertheless.

At Iowa State, administrators were blaming the students. President Wendy Wintersteen on Aug. 21 issued new conduct rules requiring all social gatherings to comply with public health guidelines either on or off campus.  Students engaging in “irresponsible behavior” are subject to discipline by the university, including suspension.

“Last weekend the nation saw an example of this type of behavior by many of our students participating in large gatherings and parties,” Wintersteen wrote, according to the Iowa State Daily. “This is unacceptable and must stop. It puts the health and safety of our campus and community at risk and it jeopardizes our ability to continue with an on-campus experience and in-person classes and activities as we have seen at other universities across the country.”

During the first week of classes, Aug. 17-23, the university news service reported that 957 students, faculty and staff were tested on campus. There were a total of 130 positive cases for a positivity rate of 13.6%

At the University of Iowa, administrators were blaming the bars. UI President Bruce Harreld sent an open letter to downtown businesses after “maskless students packed bars over the weekend,” the Daily Iowan reported.

Over 600 students and nearly a dozen faculty has tested positive at University of Iowa so far this semester.

The student newspaper reported that Harreld said during a public meeting: “We’re having an explosion of cases that are originating in the downtown, nighttime life, (especially) at the bars and clubs … It is really, really troubling for me. I’m not actually blaming you (students) as much as I am the people that operate the bars.”

Apparently, Gov. Kim Reynolds decided to blame the bars, too. She issued an emergency order Thursday that closed bars, taverns, nightclubs and the like in the three counties where the state universities are located — Black Hawk, Johnson and Story — plus Dallas, Linn and Polk. The move comes nearly a month after the governor first started raising concerns about virus spread related to young adults socializing in bars without taking public health precautions.

The move comes about two weeks late to prevent the glut of new cases that as of Friday had driven Iowa to the unenviable position as the worst state in the country for virus spread. Everybody loses, especially business owners who were following the rules and vulnerable community residents, particularly the elderly, who are at greater risk even though they haven’t socialized for months.

Some students, meanwhile, are blaming university administrators:

“The UI administration hasn’t protected the well-being of not only its students, but the tens of thousands of people living in Iowa City and Johnson County,” the Daily Iowan’s editorial board wrote Aug. 24.

The editorial rightly called out the university for its role in the widely circulated horror story of how one student was treated after she tested positive. That situation should never have happened and it might make other students think twice about coming forward if they experience virus symptoms.

The editorial also had some blame for the bars: “Despite a mask mandate in Johnson County, students are still going to choose to go out and engage in the party scene if bars remain open and don’t follow state guidelines requiring patrons to keep 6 feet apart.”

It was striking that the student newspaper simply shrugged off the students’ behavior as inevitable and put the responsibility on those who weren’t enforcing the rules.

The Iowa State Daily’s editorial board rebuked police for a lack of enforcement but it also called out students who participated in massive “801 Day” parties: “… it was extremely disheartening to see students shamelessly put their desire to party before the health of their peers.”

The editorial also pointed out: “While the blame game is easy to play, it doesn’t address the likely influx of positive COVID-19 cases at Iowa State.”

These students put their finger on the main point. If anyone is going to make it through the semester with in-person classes, everyone has to do more than point fingers.

Students have to not only avoid but make socially unacceptable large parties where distancing is a joke and no one wears a mask. The idea that these young adults can’t or shouldn’t have to be accountable for destructively self-centered behavior is repugnant. If students won’t use self-restraint, universities should send them home immediately.

Universities, whose financial stability depends on having students in classrooms and dorms, should have set clear expectations and enforceable standards of behavior before students arrived on campus. Now, it may be too late for some. Many institutions will have to make devastatingly hard choices about whether to keep students on campus and potentially jeopardize their health or send them home and risk the school’s viability.

State and local policymakers must get serious about enforcing limitations such as mask mandates, maximum gathering sizes and social distancing. Iowa is in worse shape now in terms of virus spread than it was in April and May, when thousands of businesses were shut down statewide. This affects all of us, and it’s time for everyone to take responsibility.

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