On Thursday, Georgia College and State University reported that testing had revealed 47 new student cases of the coronavirus since the day before. That was actually a good number for the public liberal arts college: it had reported 64 and 79 cases the previous two days.
In total, Georgia College has had 474 COVID-19 cases among students this August. Of course, there are institutions with higher case counts -- the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Alabama both have had over 560.
But those institutions enroll more than 30,000 students. Georgia College enrolls only about 7,000.
If head counts remain equal to last fall’s, that means more than 7 percent of on-campus students at Georgia College have been infected with the coronavirus this month. It has been just over two weeks since the start of classes. [Update: The college updated its coronavirus web page this morning to add another 40 student cases from Thursday, pushing its student total to 514 and its campus total to 535.]
Since instruction began at Georgia College, case counts in Baldwin County, where the college is located, have also been on the rise, with a sharp increase occurring after Aug. 22.
An unknown number of students are currently in quarantine at the college, with faculty estimates ranging up to one-third of the student body. College officials would not confirm nor deny that number and did not respond to repeated questions about quarantined students. Faculty members say they have not been required to provide any instructional continuity to students in quarantine.
The college also did not respond by Inside Higher Ed's deadline to questions about the share of undergraduates living in residence halls or with roommates, instructional continuity, and whether the case counts have resulted in any changes to policies or events.
The college had planned to conduct its annual Bobcat Marketplace, an in-person event where students learn about different campus organizations, on Thursday. The event was canceled roughly two hours before it was set to begin.
"Unfortunately, there has been some concern amongst some faculty about the rising COVID numbers and have asked that we cancel the event," a student affairs official wrote to student groups within hours of the planned start. "Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to do that."
Previously, in response to questions for this article, the administration had emphasized that mask wearing would be required at the event and all state and federal public health precautions would be enforced.
As far as classes, in its public-facing communications, the Georgia College administration has been adamant that instruction will be in person this fall, with very limited exceptions.
“Are students also compelled to attend class on-campus and face-to-face? Can they choose their method of instruction?” reads an FAQ on the college’s website.
“No, they are not allowed to choose their method of instruction which must be face-to-face with social distancing” is the provided answer.
Instructors were only permitted to teach their courses online if they received a waiver for their personal medical conditions. The college told faculty members it would not consider exemptions for those who have family or house mates at risk.
Update: After the publication of this article, Georgia College officials provided the following statement, which did not address Inside Higher Ed's questions about the number of students in quarantine, student living situations, thresholds for remote learning, or whether the rise in cases had resulted in any policy changes:
"We are also concerned about the recent rise in COVID positive cases among our students. This is why we continue to remind our students that COVID-19 can spread rapidly at off-campus social gatherings where social distancing and other mitigation measures are not maintained. With only 21 employee cases at Georgia College since June, our data is showing that the spread of COVID-19 is largely happening in off campus locations among our student population. We have spent the past several months preparing for in-person instruction on our campus with social distancing and other mitigation measures in place. These various measures can be found online and are consistent with guidance from the CDC and the Georgia Department of Public Health.
"The health and well-being of our students and campus community will always be our top priority. The university and it’s faculty members are doing all they can to ensure that students have an outstanding academic experience. For students in quarantine, faculty members will work to make sure learning continuity continues until they are able to return to campus safely."
On the college’s website, the administration explains that a decision to switch from in-person instruction to remote learning will not be made by the administration alone.
“Upon determination by the [University System of Georgia] and the Georgia Department of Public Health that the number of COVID-19 cases has made it so that the campus can no longer function safely, alternative plans will be enacted,” the website reads. “Any alteration of current plans will be in coordination with the USG.”
When asked about what threshold of student cases would trigger a change of plans, a spokesperson for the system office said USG monitors a variety of factors and takes into account guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the governor's COVID-19 task force.
"We remain committed to the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff, but also to the value of the on-campus educational experience," he said via email.
The Georgia Department of Public Health did not respond to a request for comment. (The department’s media contact is out of office, but Inside Higher Ed was still instructed by the department to email her address with the request.)
Over the past few months Brian Kemp, Georgia's governor, has vocally opposed public safety requirements like wearing face coverings, even as cases have spiked in the state. The University System of Georgia only decided to require -- rather than recommend -- face masks inside university buildings after immense pressure from employees and students. A online petition started by a USG workers' union has garnered over 12,000 signatures asking the Board of Regents not to compel any students or staff to engage in in-person instruction.
It has been rare for colleges to publish the number of cases that will trigger a switch to remote learning on their campuses. Many of the thresholds that have been released by colleges have been in the form of a positivity rate -- meaning the percentage of tests that return positive -- rather than the percentage of students infected.
New York governor Andrew Cuomo did release some guidance to colleges in his state Thursday in the form of thresholds for closure.
"We've seen troubling reports of students congregating on college campuses, so we are setting a threshold that says if colleges have 100 cases or if the number of cases equal 5 percent of their population or more, they must go to remote learning for two weeks, at which time we will reassess the situation," Cuomo said in a press release.
“If after two weeks, the local health department finds the college has demonstrated that it cannot contain the number of cases, then they could continue to require remote learning, or impose other mitigation measures in consultation with the State Department of Health,” the press release said.
Georgia College is set to continue in-person classes today.
Doug Lederman contributed reporting for this article.