Notre Dame reopening to in-person classes this week after COVID numbers drop

  • Students cover up during their return to the University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Indiana, in early August. Robert Franklin / South Bend Tribune via AP

For the Monitor
Published: 9/1/2020 10:59:46 AM

The University of Notre Dame was one of the first universities in the U.S. to announce its intent to hold classes in person this fall.

When it brought all 8,500 undergraduate students back to campus in early August, it was also one of the first this fall to see a coronavirus outbreak.

More than 500 community members at the South Bend, Ind. school have tested positive for COVID-19 – among the highest of all reporting U.S. colleges and universities, according to the New York Times.

Contagion surfaced on campus just days after classes started on Aug. 10. According to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, Aug. 17 alone saw 102 new cases and a positive testing rate of 24%.

Classes swiftly moved online, and Notre Dame entered a state of quasi-lockdown: In-person gatherings were limited to 10. The university closed off many of its public spaces, and appointed more personnel to monitor what stayed open. Students living off campus were not allowed to visit.

But unlike peer institutions like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan State University – which plan to spend the rest of the semester online after outbreaks of their own – Notre Dame students will return to the classroom Wednesday.

Daily positive cases have fallen substantially since their peak in mid August – Friday saw 17 positive cases, the lowest since Aug. 16.

“With these encouraging numbers, we believe we can plan to return to in-person classes and return, in stages, to the level of activity we had before the pause,” Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins announced in an address to students Friday morning.

Notre Dame, along with hundreds of other institutions that began classes last month, is evidence that outbreaks may be inevitable for schools looking to reopen. But the university has decided that keeping students in the classroom is worth the risk – and, even as cases continue to climb nationwide, is out to forge an alternative path for other schools reluctant to shutter.

Notre Dame has been planning its return to in-person classes since spring. In a May opinion piece for the New York Times, Jenkins voiced cautious optimism that the university could be reopened safely. He spoke of “extensive protocols” for testing, contact tracing and quarantining, and proper “preventive measures” like physical distancing, mandatory mask-wearing and regular sanitation.

“With these and other steps – informed by the best medical advice we can find – we believe we can keep our campus environment healthy,” he wrote.

By August, the university had opened a testing center in the football stadium, and rented nearby apartments and hotel rooms where students who tested positive could quarantine. It mobilized a massive campaign to keep students in line when they arrived, enlisting staff members and student volunteers to monitor compliance in public spaces.

But it wasn’t enough. Students were seen congregating on the quads and other outdoor venues by the dozens. They huddled shoulder-to-shoulder, many without masks. Off-campus, they partied. And in a matter of days, positive cases at Notre Dame had mushroomed into the hundreds.

Notre Dame couldn’t keep up – its testing infrastructure faltered, then fell apart. Community members took to social media and the press to voice their frustrations, complaining of backlogged phone lines, slow testing turnaround and negligent care of virus-positive students.

In a statement to students the evening of Aug. 18, Notre Dame admitted it was overwhelmed.

“The number of cases we experienced in the first week of classes far exceeded our estimates, and it stressed the new systems we put in place to test and care for our community members,” vice president for student affairs Erin Hoffmann Harding said in the statement. She said Notre Dame had hired more staff and adjusted protocol to curb lags in testing, contact tracing and student care.

For now, the outbreak appears to be under control. Notre Dame averaged about 20 positive cases per day the week of Aug. 24, compared to about 60 the week prior. The university’s surveillance testing, which it launched Aug. 21, is reporting far fewer positive cases. As of Sunday, it had collected samples from 3,100 Notre Dame community members, identifying 29 new cases.

Despite cases in the hundreds, the outbreak has stayed relatively contained to Notre Dame’s undergraduate student body: Only five staff and faculty and 30 graduate students have tested positive. Cases at neighboring Saint Mary’s College and Holy Cross College sit at 28 and four, respectively.

Officials for the city of South Bend and St. Joseph County have not said whether any local cases have been linked to Notre Dame.

David Hachen, associate professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Network and Data Science at Notre Dame, said the falling numbers were a good sign the university’s efforts were working.

Still, he worries campus could fall into a false sense of security. With current restrictions in place, the probability of another major outbreak may be low, but the high population density on campus makes matters more complicated, he said.

“The problem with pandemics and crises like this is that rare events are not as rare as you think,” Hachen said.

A spike could happen virtually anywhere – even with seemingly airtight response and prevention measures, he added.

Notre Dame will start phasing out temporary restrictions on social gatherings this week, Jenkins announced in his Friday address. In-person classes are set to resume Wednesday.

Echoing his May op-ed, Jenkins called on Notre Dame students to see the outbreak as an opportunity for learning and community-building.

“Together, we are writing one of the great comebacks in Notre Dame history,” he said.

Editor’s note: Mary Steurer, a senior at the University of Notre Dame, and Ann Gehan, a senior at Duke University, were interns at the Concord Monitor this summer. Each wrote an article for the “Monitor” about the return to campus life at their respective schools in the COVID era.

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