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As they strive to contain the spread of COVID-19 among students without taking the most extreme measure of shutting down campuses and sending students home, colleges (and local health agencies) are embracing various forms of quarantine -- some mandatory and some not, some aimed at specific groups of students or parts of campus.

The most aggressive quarantine in recent days was at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan, where the local health agency on Wednesday announced a mandatory remain-in-place order for all students living in Allendale, where the main campus is located.

The order from the Ottawa County Department of Public Health cited the fact that roughly one-fifth of the approximately 3,000 COVID-19 cases the county has had to date are tied to the university's students, and that "there is currently evidence that activity at or near the Allendale campus is not compliant with the Governor’s Executive Order allowing indoor gatherings of no more than 10 individuals, with face coverings and a sustained distance of 6 feet or more between persons."

The mandatory quarantine allows students to leave their rooms to attend in-person classes (which the university isn't curtailing), pick up food or "other basic needs," go to medical appointments or engage in religious activities, and do jobs that can't be done remotely.

An FAQ about the order explains why students can't go home and why Grand Valley State is not moving all classes into a virtual format.

"To move to remote learning was considered by the administration and was discussed at the Executive Committee of the Senate on September 4. It was decided that, because of the nature of the order from Ottawa County, that our current modes of teaching and learning would continue. Our classrooms remain safe, as our risk mitigation efforts to date -- face coverings, social distancing, cleaning -- have been effective. Continuing with our current course offering modalities (face-to-face, hybrid, online) will minimize disruption to students and their learning."

Reversals in Colleges' Fall 2020 Reopening Plans

Scores of colleges and universities have in recent weeks changed the plans they set last spring for reopening their physical campuses this fall. This tracker and searchable database shows how those changes have unfolded over time.

View Inside Higher Ed’s Live Data Tracker »

Three major public universities in recent days also imposed campuswide quarantines -- but in all three cases, the limitations were described as recommendations, not mandates.

The health department in Ingham County, which is home to East Lansing, Mich., and Michigan State University, on Saturday said that it "strongly recommends all local MSU students self-quarantine immediately to contain the outbreak." Officials said the two-week self-quarantine was designed to stop the "exponential growth of COVID-19 cases" among Michigan State students and that "more stringent and mandatory restrictions will be imposed if students do not comply and break the transmission cycle." The Michigan State guidance permits students to leave their residences for in-person classes, jobs and the like.

On Monday, the Ingham health department followed up with a mandatory (and much more restrictive) order for students in 30 large residences, including 23 fraternity and sorority houses and large rental homes.

"The surge in cases we have seen over the past few weeks is alarming," wrote Linda S. Vail, the county's health officer. "I am disheartened to add that this outbreak is being fueled in part by a lack of cooperation and compliance from some MSU students, many residing in the properties now under mandatory quarantine."

Students in the off-campus residences can leave their homes only for medical care or undeliverable necessities.

The University of Arizona on Monday and the University of Colorado at Boulder on Tuesday also recommended, but did not mandate, that students stay in their residences.

In both cases, the universities acted in concert with local officials, who continue to put pressure on nearby institutions to contain COVID-19 spreads driven by their students.

The universities and health officials in both places said they hoped their "strong" recommendations would suffice in controlling the virus, but that stronger action may be needed. The letter from Boulder County Public Health, in fact, used the exact same language that officials in Ingham County, Mich., used: "This recommendation is not an emergency order; however, more stringent and mandatory restrictions will be imposed if students do not comply and break the transmission cycle."

Meanwhile, Providence College, in Rhode Island, on Tuesday ordered all students who live off the campus to either isolate or quarantine until further notice. The college ordered all students who were not already isolating because of a positive test to come to the campus Wednesday afternoon to be tested by the institution. All off-campus students will attend courses remotely during this time.

Resuming In-Person Instruction

This week several institutions that had paused in-person instruction or imposed restrictions on student behavior to try to contain the spread of COVID-19 said their efforts had been successful enough that they would resume classroom learning or otherwise loosen the reins.

On Wednesday, the University of Dayton resumed in-person instruction, following last Friday's announcement that a set of restrictions imposed late last month had helped lower the number of COVID-19 cases on the campus. "It is ESSENTIAL that everyone understands there is no guarantee of continued in-person instruction without continued strict adherence to the safety protocols that led to lower infection rates," President Eric D. Spina wrote. "Although active case numbers on campus have decreased, we all know this virus is extremely contagious -- evidenced by the quick spike we saw that brought the total number of students impacted to more than 1,000 in just a few days."

Spina said that several of the measures imposed last month -- moving to purely grab-and-go food service, barring students from having visitors in their room, and restricting off-campus movement except for educational purposes such as an internship -- would remain in place.

Hartwick College and the University of Wyoming also announced in recent days that they would resume in-person instruction after previously shifting to all-virtual learning to stem the spread of the virus.

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