Personal Finance

Coronavirus cases on college campuses spike, linked to parties

Key Points
  • Even though the vast majority of college students want to be on campus, failing to follow social distancing guidelines is causing a troubling rise in cases of coronavirus.
  • In many cases, parties are to blame.
  • Whether institutions will be open in the spring is still up in the air.
What it's like to return to college during a pandemic
What it's like to return to college during a pandemic

"As soon as I heard that that the freshmen class would be invited back, I decided to go," said Ahmad Alsheikh, 18, of his decision to attend college in person this fall.

But even though Alsheikh has been on campus since September, he still communicates with his classmates largely online.

The Harvard freshman says he is careful to follow the school's guidelines for social distancing and restrictions on social gatherings to fewer than 10 people.

Ahmad Alsheikh, 18, was admitted to the Harvard class of 2024.
Source: Ahmad Alsheikh

There are "a lot of virtual meet and greets," he said. "Largely with the help of community building events through Zoom, I have been able to form social interactions and meet fellow first years in person."

To date, Harvard has had just 24 reported positive cases of Covid-19 among its undergraduates, and only a limited number of students are permitted on the Cambridge, Massachusetts campus.

Not every college experience is going as well.

Overall, 87% of institutions have combined in-person and virtual learning in response to the public health crisis, according to a report by the Institute of International Education that was based on data collected in July from more than 500 colleges and universities in the U.S. 

Roughly 65% of current college students have been tested for Covid-19 since returning to school and 12% were positive as of the first week of November — nearly double the nationwide positivity rate during that time period, according to a recent survey by of 1,000 undergraduate students who are currently on-campus for in-person learning.

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While being back on campus, nearly half, or 48%, of college students have gone to parties despite social distancing guidelines and 20% of them have tested positive for Covid-19, the report found.

Further, 5% of students said they would not get tested or self-quarantine if they found out they were at a party with classmates who tested positive.

Yet, the vast majority of college students still say they prefer in-person instruction to distance learning, particularly at the same high cost.

At the same time, such behavior is causing campuses across the country, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, to shut down after they experienced a surge in cases linked to fraternities, sororities and off-campus parties.

Whether institutions will be open for the spring semester remains very much up in the air.

One week out from Thanksgiving, coronavirus cases are still on the rise across the U.S. The national seven-day average of daily new infections now stands at 161,165, according to a CNBC analysis of John Hopkins data — 26% higher than a week ago.

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