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COVID-19 Surge Likely After North Texas Campuses Reopen, Public Health Experts Say

"Talk about a coronavirus breeding ground."EXPAND
"Talk about a coronavirus breeding ground."

One week after the start of the fall semester, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill stopped offering in-person classes. Within that time, 130 students and five employees contracted the coronavirus, according to NPR.

Soon, many North Texas colleges are also opening their doors to in-person learning, and Mimi Chapman, UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty chair, is asking campus officials to learn from her school’s experience.

“UNC has some of the best public health, infectious disease [and] health communications folks in the country,” she told NPR. “If we can't bring those resources to bear in the way that we did with a more successful result, I think it should give every other large public university in the country pause before going forward.”

With the arrival of the fall semester, colleges nationwide are grappling with how to safely reopen campuses amid the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a difficult feat, no doubt, and public health experts say there’s not a one-size-fits-all option.

Most North Texas campuses will begin in-person classes Monday. They all offer some form of online learning, too, but epidemiologists fear that even reduced face-to-face class sizes could lead to significant coronavirus spread.

Catherine Troisi, who holds a doctorate in epidemiology, is an associate professor of epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. She said she was not surprised to learn that UNC-Chapel Hill had to close.

“You can put a lot of precautions in place,” she said. “But as UNC found, it’s really hard to bring a number of young people together and not have transmission.”

Masks are required at North Texas schools that are reopening to in-person classes, and social distancing and other safety measures will also be in place.

In addition, certain air filtration systems can be installed in classrooms to scrub the air of lingering virus-laden droplets. However, Troisi said that if a coronavirus-positive person coughs or sneezes, spread can still occur.

Regardless, most transmissions will happen off-campus, such as in dorm rooms, Troisi said.

Even amid a global pandemic, she added, some college students will attend parties where it’s difficult to maintain safe physical distances. It doesn’t help that drinking can also weaken one’s inhibitions, she said.

“You can spread out people in the classroom, but really? You think they aren’t going to be a little closer for various activities?” Troisi said with a laugh. “These are 18-year-olds.”

Some school officials believe that transmission is inevitable, but that it shouldn’t prevent campuses from hosting in-person classes this fall.

Tuesday, The Washington Post published an opinion column by the president of Northeastern University in Boston in which he argued for the reopening of schools. To bolster his case, he cited epidemiologists who said that life likely won’t return to “normal” for another four to five years.

It would be devastating to students, he continued, to bar campuses from offering in-person classes for that long.

Other entities, such as major league sports organizations and theme parks, have also taken that approach and reopened with rigorous safety guidelines.

Epidemiologist Dr. Sadiya Khan, who is an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said school administrators should look to the NBA for answers. Aside from being tested daily, basketball players are sequestered from the outside world, tactics that have worked to keep their case count at zero, according to Politico.

Khan said that if schools want to keep the virus at bay, they should implement similar measures, as well as contact tracing. Otherwise, an outbreak becomes increasingly likely.

“I think larger schools especially are going to struggle,” she said, “because all it’s going to take is one person to not adhere to masking, handwashing, physical distancing and you can have an outbreak.”

Some students may feel as though they don’t need to abide by those strict measures because of their age, Troisi said. Although people in their 20s and 30s can still develop severe symptoms, they’re less likely than older adults to die from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No matter how many precautions are taken, Troisi said, there probably isn’t a safe way to bring students back to school without transmission. Still, she understands why many young students, who are learning how to navigate social interactions and miss their friends, would want to return.

If an outbreak forces a campus to close, it could theoretically reopen after two weeks of quarantining and heavy disinfecting, Troisi said. The odds of it staying open, though, are slim.

“Unless you remove the students from campus, you’re going to continue to have transmission,” she said.

University of North Texas
According to its website, UNT in Denton wants students to have the option of on-campus, partially in-person and online-only classes. Officials ask that students review their class schedule ahead of time and make changes as necessary. The first day of class is Aug. 24.

University of North Texas at Dallas
Nearly all classes will be held remotely at UNT at Dallas, according to the college's website. School begins Aug. 24.

Southern Methodist University
Some classes at SMU will be offered as in-person or online-only, according to its website. Students who prefer to work remotely had the opportunity to request that option. Its first day is Aug. 24.

Texas Woman’s University
TWU’s website states that the school will offer in-person, virtual or hybrid classes to students at each one of its three campuses. Classes begin Aug. 24.

University of Texas at Arlington
Students should check their schedule before the start of the semester to see which classes will be taught in-person, online or as a hybrid of both, according to the school’s website. Classes start Aug. 26.

University of Texas at Dallas
According to its website, UT at Dallas is offering its students several learning options, including traditional, blended, flexible, remote and online. In addition, each course mode has an asynchronous option for students who "cannot come or choose not to return to campus." Classes began Aug. 17.

Texas Christian University
TCU is offering in-person, physically distanced classes as well as online courses that are mainly delivered synchronously, according to its website. Classes began Aug. 17.

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Baylor University
Less than 30% of classes will be held online, according to Baylor’s website. Instead, the school will prioritize in-person learning and offer online and hybrid courses with the plan to move those to face-to-face if current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations allow. The first day of school is Aug. 24.

Tarrant County College
TCC’s website states that classes will be primarily held online, although there are a few that will still meet in-person. Most will start on or after Aug. 24.

North Central Texas College
Students have four learning options at NCTC: face-to-face, hybrid, online or synchronized online courses, according to the school’s website. Fall classes will begin Aug. 24.

Collin College
All campuses are opening Aug. 24 for in-person or virtual learning, according to the school’s website.

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