“SEND HELP” and “FREE US” were written in sticky notes on the windows of a dorm at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as a soundtrack from “The Purge” movies — a series of dystopian horror films — boomed from an upper floor.
Freshmen in pajamas and masks darted up and down sidewalks in driving rain, hauling bags of groceries and bottles of alcohol. Frazzled parents waited in minivans as their children dragged belongings outside to evacuate.
The chaos erupted last month when the university announced a lockdown of two large residence halls, each home to more than 1,000 students, after local officials demanded action amid soaring coronavirus caseloads.
Students were told that they could not leave the building, for any reason, for two weeks — and that those who did would not be allowed back during the quarantine. So they either prepared to hunker down, or fled to their bedrooms back home.
Wisconsin is among a handful of American universities driven by rising infections to try a drastic remedy: asking large numbers of students — sometimes the entire campus — to quarantine for 14 days in their dorms, apartments or fraternity and sorority houses.
American colleges have become a major source of coronavirus infections in recent weeks. A New York Times tracking effort, updated last week, has identified more than 178,000 confirmed cases at colleges and universities since the pandemic began. Most have been announced since students returned to campus for the fall term.
As outbreaks have grown, campuswide quarantines have been tried at institutions large and small, from the sprawling University of Arizona in Tucson, which issued a two-week shelter-in-place request on Sept. 15, to green-lawned Grand Valley State in western Michigan, where students were told to stay in their homes for 14 days starting on Sept. 17.
Some schools promised harsh penalties for violators. Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., gave its students an easy way to report one another — the “snitch form,” as it is known on campus — and has issued $250 fines.
But other colleges have done little to keep students away from bars and late-night parties. Their quarantine instructions allowed exceptions for a wide range of activities, including classes, work, medical appointments, grocery shopping and takeout. Still, on some campuses, the Hail Mary appears to have worked: Caseloads there have come down.
To find out what life is really like at colleges that tried to squelch socializing and slow the virus’s spread, we enlisted journalists from five schools to tell the story.
‘We need everyone to do their part’
News Editor, The Daily Wildcat
TUCSON, Ariz. — When some 45,000 students returned to the University of Arizona in late August, officials were clear that it was conditional on compliance: We would have to wear masks in buildings, follow social-distancing requirements and use the hand sanitizer you can find everywhere on campus.
Each week, our president, Robert C. Robbins, gave a news conference, imploring students to follow the rules.
I’m here to report: It didn’t work.
After nearly 600 students tested positive the week of Sept. 6, Dr. Robbins announced a “last-ditch effort” to stem the outbreak: a two-week shelter-in-place recommendation.
“We need everyone to do their part,” Dr. Robbins said.
Personally, I didn’t go out much during the 14-day period. My busy workload kept me holed up in my apartment, taking online classes and working on the campus newspaper. But for others, life didn’t immediately change.
I live off Fourth Avenue, a busy street filled with bars and restaurants near the western edge of campus. On the first weekend after the shelter-in-place request, it looked normal — or at least as normal as it can when people are out eating and drinking during a pandemic.
Closer to campus, University Boulevard was also open and running. If an out-of-towner had walked past Gentle Ben’s Brewing or Illegal Pete’s, two University of Arizona institutions, they wouldn’t have guessed everyone was supposed to be staying home.
Dr. Robbins promised “drastic changes” would occur if things didn’t improve, and they have: Over the past 10 days, the university has reported 42 new positive tests, far below last month’s peak.
I’m hoping that means we’ll never have to find out what “drastic changes” he had in mind.
The Daily Wildcat is an independent news organization serving the University of Arizona since 1899.
‘Use the form’
Editor in Chief, The Bradley Scout
PEORIA, Ill. — Officially, the form on Bradley University’s website that allows students to report violations of the school’s coronavirus rules is known as the noncompliance report.
But we just call it the “snitch form.”
You can report students for failing to wear a mask, failing to social distance, failing to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, and failing to cough or sneeze into a tissue or elbow. There’s even an option to upload photographic evidence.
Ratting one another out became more tempting as confirmed cases began rising quickly at our school of 6,000 students in late August. The test positivity rate soared from less than 3 percent on Aug. 27 to more than 8 percent a week later and 14 percent by Sept. 10, according to the campus dashboard.
Given that steep climb, and the number of students who were forced to quarantine because of contact tracing, the university ordered a two-week, all-student quarantine starting on Sept. 8.
“It is very important students stay put,” officials said. They weren’t kidding. Eight days into quarantine, the university had issued 11 $250 fines and was considering whether to ban three students from campus and suspend one for the rest of the academic year.
Noah Mollet, 19, a sophomore majoring in theater arts, said he initially thought that “it’s their own grave they’re digging” if students didn’t follow the rules.
“But it spreads,” he said. “When people break the rules, they’re hurting other people and ruining other people’s experiences.”
After someone on his floor tested positive, Mr. Mollet sought a test for himself — also positive — and was ordered to isolate for 10 days in a room with three other infected students. After his new roommates invited several people into the apartment, he reported them.
The campus police showed up, took the students’ names and made sure the guests left, he said.
“My roommates were less than happy,” Mr. Mollett said. “I was worried they would hurt me and my stuff.”
The “snitch form” yields a lot of power, and there’s potential for abuse, even false reports. But combined with the quarantine, there’s evidence it might be working. Bradley’s test positivity rate reached a peak of 16 percent on Sept. 17 but has since declined significantly.
“I can see why people are scared, but use the form,” Mr. Mollett said. “It works.”
The Bradley Scout, a student-run publication, was established at Bradley University in 1898.
Climbing caseloads on ‘the Hill’
Editor in Chief, CU Independent
BOULDER, Colo. — At the University of Colorado, there’s sometimes an “us vs. them” mind-set pitting independent students against those in fraternities and sororities.
That tension has been high this term as University Hill, known around town as “the Hill,” has become a hot spot in more ways than one. Home to bars and many of the school’s fraternity and sorority houses, it’s the place you go to party, pandemic or not.
But it’s also the place that helped to drive up the school’s coronavirus caseloads, leading Boulder County on Sept. 15 to issue a 14-day quarantine notice for every Colorado student. Officials blamed a major uptick in part on “large off-campus gatherings, particularly among sororities, fraternities and other students living in the Hill neighborhood.”
Things got even stricter on Sept. 24, when the county prohibited anyone between the ages of 18 and 22 from gathering.
“I drove past the Hill last night,” Delaney Hartmann, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in political science, told me recently, “and there were tons of people at restaurants, at the bars, not wearing masks.”
Ms. Hartmann said she was especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, with conditions including dysautonomia that result in chronic pain, fatigue and nausea.
The latest on how schools are reopening amid the pandemic.
“I don’t want to blame every single individual who is living on the Hill who is in a sorority or fraternity,” she said. “But it is definitely a source of a lot of the outbreaks.”
All of this has added to long-simmering tension between Greek students and the rest of campus. Some fraternity and sorority members “have taken a while to truly understand” the seriousness of Covid-19, Harrison Bolin, president of the Xi chapter of the Christian fraternity Alpha Gamma Omega, acknowledged.
But Mr. Bolin said it was unfair to blame Greek students alone: “The administration severely underestimated their ability to manage tens of thousands of college students going through the longest period of isolation and uncertainty in our lives.”
CU Independent is the online news site for the University of Colorado Boulder, with content produced by students for the university and surrounding community.
‘Nobody is wearing a mask’
Editor in Chief, Grand Valley Lanthorn
ALLENDALE, Mich. — Life has been very different on the two campuses of Grand Valley State University this fall.
Those of us who live in Allendale, Mich., home to about 14,500 students this semester, spent two weeks under a stay-in-place order issued on Sept. 16. It came after the school reported one of the largest-known campus outbreaks in Michigan, with more than 400 confirmed cases.
We weren’t supposed to leave home — except to go to work, to attend classes or religious services, or to obtain medical care, groceries or other necessities. The order kept things a bit quieter than usual, but many students seemed oblivious.
“I think if they’re already partying, they’re not really going to stop,” said Amelia Goetzinger, 21, a junior mathematics major.
Twelve miles away, on the downtown Grand Rapids campus in neighboring Kent County, some 7,700 students were unaffected by the order, although they’re expected to abide by the normal public health restrictions already in place.
To find out how things were different on the downtown campus, I spoke with Michael Vazquez, 21, a senior history major who lives in Grand Rapids. People there, he said, appeared to be taking the rules more seriously.
“In Kent County, you can’t go anywhere or do anything without a mask,” he told me. But when he comes to Allendale for his only in-person class, he said, “Nobody is wearing a mask other than me. It’s a little frustrating.”
Throughout the two weeks that the order was in place, I did my best to comply. But at night I could see and hear scattered groups of students moving between houses, with some still wandering the community maskless.
By following the rules, I missed the chance to celebrate my roommate’s birthday with friends, and I missed seeing my girlfriend. Two weeks? Felt like an eternity.
The Lanthorn has served the Grand Valley State University community as an independent, student-run newspaper since its founding as The Keystone in 1963.
‘Do I have enough to eat?’
City News Editor, The Daily Cardinal
MADISON, Wis. — Everyone seemed to know it was coming.
It was only our second week of classes, but coronavirus caseloads at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were climbing quickly. Local officials wanted action after 46 separate outbreaks and nearly 1,000 positive cases.
In a letter to administrators on Sept. 9, Joe Parisi, the Dane County executive, called for students to be sent home. The campus started to worry about a quarantine.
“I was going into my very first college exam,” said Noah Cotton, 18, a freshman who lived in a dorm with a major outbreak. Instead of focusing on his answers, he wondered: “Do I have enough to eat? How am I going to be able to talk to people?”
That night, students began to panic. Everyone bought groceries and alcohol.
At 8:20 p.m., a university email made it official: Two dorms, Sellery and Witte, home to 2,200 students, would be quarantined for two weeks starting at 10 p.m. “Residents of those halls will be required to remain in their hall during that time or go home,” the announcement said. The university shifted classes online, and gatherings of more than 10 people were prohibited.
That’s when I saw the “SEND HELP” and “FREE US” sticky notes on the windows of Sellery and heard the music from “The Purge” booming from an open dorm window.
Mr. Cotton would later test positive. “It was definitely my floor,” he said. “My roommate and I tested positive. The people in the room next to us tested positive. The people down the hall tested positive. It was all of us.”
Many people chose to leave campus that night. I watched students hop into Ubers, bound for hotels.
Mr. Cotton, who is Black, said he stayed because he didn’t have much choice. “Most minority students don’t have the means to just leave the dorm, to travel, to get an apartment, to feel safe,” he said.
The quarantine seemed to do its job, and the lockdown has been lifted. “Due to the actions the university took to contain a rise in cases early in the semester, including robust testing, isolation of positive students, and quarantines, Covid-19 cases have remained low on campus since the third week of September,” the university’s case-tracking dashboard said on Wednesday.
Everyone is holding their breath to see how long it lasts.
The Daily Cardinal is an independent, student-run newspaper that has served the University of Wisconsin-Madison community since 1892.