Last Monday, top officials on the White House coronavirus task force issued an urgent warning to governors across the country: Stop sending your COVID-infected college students home to their parents or risk another nationwide surge, just like the one that overwhelmed the South this summer.
So far, the task force’s request for governors to talk to their college presidents appears to have made little difference. By the end of the week, some colleges in the country’s biggest coronavirus hot spots not only were still allowing students to go home after they’d been exposed or infected—they were ordering them to.
“You need to relocate, as soon as possible, to your home or other off-campus location for the duration of your self-isolation period,” said a form letter sent Wednesday from the Office of the Dean at Georgia Southern University to on-campus students who reported being exposed to or infected with the coronavirus. The university even tried to run students in off-campus housing out of town, telling them to “return home to self-isolate as soon as possible,” according to the email, obtained by The Daily Beast.
That lack of containment has had severe consequences. Statesboro, the small town where Georgia Southern is located, registered more than 700 positive coronavirus cases during the last two weeks in August. It was one of the highest per capita rates of increase in any United States metro area during that stretch, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
“I have parents in their seventies visiting me this holiday weekend, and I’m scared to death for them to come to our small little town,” Leticia McGrath, a professor of Spanish at Georgia Southern University for over two decades, told The Daily Beast. “It’s bad.”
In the month since students began traveling back to their college campuses, coronavirus hot zones have migrated with them. Now many of the cities and towns where cases are surging fastest—places like Iowa City, Auburn, Statesboro, and Ames—are college towns. And while lax policies toward containment on and off-campus have created local breeding grounds for the virus, they’re not expected to stay local long, with sick students leaving campus and fall weather increasing viral spread.
“The original sin was inviting the students back to campus,” said Michael Innis-Jimenez, a professor of American studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where more than 2,000 students tested positive for the coronavirus in the last three weeks. “And now it’s going to be very problematic to get them home. I think they finally saw that at the White House.”
Still, the White House response to the virus has been anything but consistent. Last Sunday, the White House coronavirus task force urged Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds to issue a statewide mask mandate, noting the state now had the highest number of new infections in the country. The governor publicly disagreed with the proposal. Four days later, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams sided with Reynolds, telling a local news