Counties and Colleges Wrangle Over COVID-19

Campus leaders in Kansas, Michigan and Texas face pressure from local health authorities to toughen COVID-19 restrictions, and some push back.

September 8, 2020
 

Officials at Benedictine College in Kansas thought they had a pretty good handle on the coronavirus on their campus an hour northwest of Kansas City.

Last Wednesday, there were 37 active cases of COVID-19 among the Roman Catholic institution's roughly 2,000 students and 500 employees, or about 1.5 percent of the total campus population. That was down from 46 cases the previous week, and Benedictine officials were hopeful that additional steps they had taken last weekend -- extending a mask requirement to outside spaces as well as inside buildings, shifting all food service to grab-and-go -- would drive the number down further.

Officials in Atchison County, where the college is located, weren't so sure. Looking not at the number of current cases but at a cumulative total -- roughly 150 COVID-infected people in total since the campus began filling up in July and August -- they saw a potential hot spot that disproportionately threatened the health of the county's 16,000 residents.

So Wednesday afternoon, they informed Benedictine administrators that beginning at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, all of the college's students would be required to quarantine in their on- or off-campus residences for two weeks. Lori Forge, the county's chief health officer, said at a hearing Wednesday evening that it would "be negligent of her not to put this order in place in [an] effort to protect the health and wellness of the community as a whole during the pandemic," the Atchison Globe reported.

College officials balked, both at the quarantine itself and particularly at the late notice, hours before it was to take effect, and persuaded county officials to delay it a day.

That began a feverish negotiation between college and county officials that resulted, late Friday, in a compromise that avoided a campuswide quarantine but restricted the flow of students onto and off the campus. "Benedictine College and Atchison are not two communities in conflict, but one community," read the joint agreement.

In many college and university towns across the country, anxious local officials are watching as the number of COVID-19 cases and positivity rates climb as campuses reopen and students from points beyond flock back to communities that, especially in exurban or rural areas, have seen limited impact from the coronavirus. A front-page article in The New York Times Sunday, focusing largely on major public universities, found that of about 200 counties where students make up at least 10 percent of the population, "about half experienced their worst weeks of the pandemic since August 1," and half of those appeared to be at their peak.

In some of those places, what had been largely collaborative relationships between college and county officials have been significantly frayed.

In Laredo, Tex., for instance, the local health authority announced Wednesday that it would place two gyms and activity centers at Texas A&M International University under quarantine, citing rising COVID-19 cases. County officials said they acted after learning for the first time last Monday that the university had COVID-19 cases in the double digits.

“It is not just a TAMIU issue because people don’t live, stay, and only confine themselves to TAMIU,” Robert Eads, the city manager in Laredo, told a local television station.

But hours later, the university announced that the Texas Department of State Health Services had intervened to revoke the local order.

"Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) will remain open, services will be provided and classes will be delivered because the actions taken today by the Laredo Health Authority (LHA) are over-reaching, unlawful and, frankly, unnecessary given the university’s incredibly low positivity rate," President Pablo Arenaz said in a message to the campus.

More commonly, at least so far, the pattern has been that local leaders turn up the pressure publicly (sometimes after trying unsuccessfully to work behind the scenes), campus leaders bristle, and a compromise is reached.

At Benedictine, Johnson said the county's order took college officials by surprise, though county officials had made their concerns known in previous days.

"We had been working in a partnership with the county," he said. "It's got a small population, so even 30 to 40 students with COVID changes the numbers in the county in a real way."

Benedictine screened students and employees with a saliva test upon arrival in August. The college has not been testing students unless they show symptoms, and those that the county's contact tracing efforts show might have been exposed are quarantined. (Roughly 130 Benedictine students are quarantined now.)

As county worries mounted about the cumulative number of students who'd had the virus, college officials ramped up their "good-faith steps" to control infection, Johnson said, including shutting down the cafeteria and imposing the outside mask requirement in late August.

Benedictine officials said they believed their "mitigation strategies" were working, resulting in the slow drop of active cases in recent days. But county health officials, who did not respond to email or telephone messages, seemed to think the college's efforts were inadequate and that stronger measures -- like the quarantine -- were needed.

Two days of negotiation identified a middle ground called "Atchison and Benedictine: Stronger Together."

For two weeks beginning Sept. 5, Benedictine's on-campus students were barred from leaving campus except for scheduled or emergency medical or mental health appointments, to fulfill academic requirements, to "work or obtain essential goods," or to pick up an order at a local business. Sports teams without any active COVID-19 cases can continue to practice in small groups.

Off-campus students can come to the Benedictine campus only for a necessary academic purpose, religious service, sports practice or work-study.

Benedictine officials said they were pleased by the compromise because it "avoids a quarantine order restricting students to their dorm rooms and allows for the continuation of in-person classes for these students."

They also noted that by Friday, the day the compromise was reached, the number of active COVID-19 cases on campus had fallen to 23, from 37 two days earlier.

Local Pressure in Michigan

Adrian College has been battling COVID-19, and late last week authorities in Lewanee County asked -- but did not order -- college leaders to take more aggressive steps to counter the virus.

As of last week, 6 percent of the college's roughly 2,250 students and employees had tested positive for COVID-19, prompting President Jeffrey R. Docking, in a video message, to say that the college would now allow all instructors who wished to do so to move their courses online for the next two weeks. (The college had previously required instructors to teach in person unless they had a medical accommodation or other strong justification for teaching virtually.) Adrian also moved all food service to a to-go approach and urged students to limit the size of gatherings and to stay on campus.

As the Labor Day holiday approached, though, officials in Lewanee County issued an emergency order noting that COVID-19 cases in the county had risen almost four times faster among 18- to 24-year-olds than among the total population in August. The county is home to Siena Heights University, which has had just two positive cases, as well as Adrian.

The order contained one mandate -- limiting the size of outdoor gatherings to 25, below the statewide limit of 100 -- and a set of "recommendations" for Adrian specifically, including suspending in-person instruction except for laboratory classes and sports practices and closing all in-person dining and common areas for two weeks.

Martha Hall, Lewanee County's health officer, suggested in response to a reporter's question that the county believed recommendations rather than mandates were adequate for now. "The Health Department will continue to monitor the situation closely and if necessary will utilize the authority granted through the Michigan Public Health Code to impose additional restrictions to control the spread of the virus in our community," she said via email.

Adrian College officials did not respond to the county's emergency order for two days, but late Friday they released a statement saying that sports teams had suspended practice for 10 days and that "many" courses had been transitioned to a virtual format to "flatten the curve."

An email message sent by the college's vice president for academic affairs went a step further, citing the county's recommendation and saying, "If you have not done so already, please convert your lecture classes to a synchronous virtual delivery format. Also, as recommended, if social distancing is not feasible in your labs/studio classes, please work with students virtually or set appointments if possible."

Adrian officials said the campus has had 162 total COVID-19 cases out of roughly 2,300 people tested, and that 139 of those cases are active.

They will be watching for any changes in those numbers, and as is true in communities around the country, local officials will certainly be watching, too.

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