Catholic colleges handle COVID-19 outbreaks on campus

Catholic colleges handle COVID-19 outbreaks on campus

Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, addresses the crowd June 1, 2020, during the "Pray for Unity, Walk for Justice" event in memory of George Floyd on the campus near South Bend. Father Jenkins announced Oct. 2 he has tested positive for COVID-19. (Credit: Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via Reuters via CNS.)

On Sept. 4, the president of Ave Maria University had good news to share with his school.

SOUTH BEND, Indiana— On Sept. 4, the president of Ave Maria University had good news to share with his school.

Our comprehensive Ave Maria University Health Safety Plan is working!” began a message from President Christopher Ice to the university community. “We are two weeks into our new school year and I am proud to share we are doing a fantastic job managing COVID-19.”

Just over a month later, the message was not so cheerful.

“I am writing to ask for your renewed vigilance in helping to eradicate COVID-19 within our community,” Ice started an Oct. 8 message informing students of an increase in cases. 

But despite Ice’s request, cases rose over the weekend at the Catholic college of 1,000 students in Florida. On Oct. 11, Ave Maria moved their classes online for two days to halt the disease’s spread. While the move appeared to prevent a major outbreak, the school recorded more than 40 cases of COVID-19 in the two weeks following the temporary move online.

As COVID-19 continues to afflict the country, Catholic colleges with in-person instruction like Ave Maria have battled surges in cases, causing them to shift how they offer instruction. Now, as a record number of Americans test positive for COVID-19, some schools are reporting a steady rise in cases, despite stretches of low infection numbers early in the semester.

Officials at a number of schools credit the surges to students not following health protocols, such as wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings— a problem that could worsen as fatigue from the constant vigilance required of students grows. 

Officials at the University of Notre Dame moved classes online for a two-week period in August and September, after an outbreak that caused 107 cases in a single day at its peak. While the school saw low COVID-19 numbers after its reprieve from in-person learning, cases shot up around Oct. 11 and are now hovering at an average of more than 17 per day. 

University officials credited the recent spike to off-campus partying that occurred the weekend of the school’s nighttime football matchup with Florida State University. It was also the first weekend after the school’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, tested positive for COVID-19, days after he did not wear a mask at the nomination ceremony for now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. 

In Connecticut, two Catholic colleges responded to outbreaks on their campuses with strong disciplinary measures. When Fairfield University saw more than 60 cases in a week, the Jesuit school of 4,000 closed campus to students from a neighborhood known for parties.

While the case numbers at Fairfield have since settled, the school has had more than 350 cases as of Oct. 29 out of almost 10,000 tests, a 3.5 percent positivity rate. 

Case numbers are slightly higher just five miles across town at Sacred Heart University. As of Oct. 29, the school had almost 400 positive cases from 10,043 tests. After seeing a spike in infections on campus, Sacred Heart issued more than 100 suspensions to students lasting 14 to 30 days, with two “repeat offenders” being booted off campus for the semester. 

Amidst the outbreak, President John Petillo told students that there were a “significant number” of students not taking safety precautions seriously.

“Do you want to still be on campus?” he asked students in a Sept. 23 video message, as the school recorded more than 100 cases in a week. “We cannot continue this way and remain business as usual.”

Not all Catholic colleges opened their campuses this semester, though. Some, including Georgetown University, chose to offer remote instruction for the fall semester.

Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles also went online for the fall, but hopes to launch a “low-density, in-person” semester “in the spring as soon as public health authorities allow.” For now, the school is scheduling all courses as if they will be taught online.

For schools who have taught the fall in person, many are planning to begin next semester later than usual and axe the typical spring break to dissuade students from traveling. Some, including Notre Dame and Boston College, plan to offer days off throughout the semester so students can get some rest during a hectic semester. 

Still, the country faces an uncertain future in its battle with COVID-19, and all schools can do is hope their relative success from the fall can carry them forward through the rest of the year.

“The Boston College community has come together in remarkable ways thus far in 2020,” wrote two top administrators at the Jesuit school. “We look forward to working together for another safe and successful semester in early 2021.”

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