College administrators and government officials summoned students back to campus. Now, they are presiding over viral reservoirs poised to release a flood of infected undergraduates at Thanksgiving - if they make it that far.
Schools have turned into de facto sanitariums: COVID-19 infections are sweeping student populations, though health departments are seeing relatively few hospitalizations or deaths so far. Colleges that tried to hold classes in person have had to send students into seclusion. Last week alone, the New Jersey Institute of Technology quarantined 300 people after the virus was found in their dorm's wastewater, the University of Wisconsin at River Falls ordered all students to shelter in place after a surge in cases, and Florida State University's football coach announced he had tested positive.
With many schools planning to end their semesters at the holiday, students will disperse across the country, and some will bring the disease with them.
"This is beyond our wildest nightmares," said Gavin Yamey, a physician who directs Duke University's Center for Policy Impact in Global Health. "It has been a debacle, a national catastrophe and, in many ways, you could consider it a third wave. The third wave is a university reopening wave. It was a self-inflicted national wound."
Universities were bleeding revenue when they called students back for the fall semester, facing cuts as tuition and fees plunged. Some plowed ahead with lucrative football programs, despite their potential to draw crowds. But as students returned, infection rates increased. Many schools are now running out of space to house those who tested positive. Administrators are struggling to keep infections contained as students venture off campus for coffee or hang out at bars and parties.
"If infected students go home, there is a risk that they could seed outbreaks all around the country - outbreaks that are ultimately caused by the university reopening," said Yamey.
Michigan State University changed to all virtual education in mid-August to prevent having to send students home, but many wound up in off-campus housing. MSU's home county, Ingham, last week issued a mandatory quarantine for off-campus residences including fraternity and sorority houses.
In Colorado, Boulder County on Tuesday issued a "strong recommendation" to University of Colorado students to quarantine for two weeks in residence halls or homes to contain a surge in COVID-19 infections. The majority of new cases has been among those aged 18 to 29.
"Most transmission seems to be coming from large off-campus gatherings, particularly among sororities, fraternities and other students living in the Hill neighborhood, along with failure to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing," the health department said.
Some schools have sent students home without testing them, potentially carrying the virus throughout regions. With Thanksgiving ahead, the potential for wider infections is dangerous. One solution could be a two-week university-wide quarantine before departure, said Duke's Yamey. Minimally, all students should be tested, he said, with the infected isolated and the exposed quarantined.