Schools in states like Georgia and Indiana have already been open for a month, but experts say they cannot yet be sure what the effect will be on virus transmission in communities.
Bill Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that because of the huge variation in how schools are reopening — with some schools strictly enforcing social distancing and mask requirements and others doing far less — “we expect there to be quite a wide range in terms of consequences.”
Already, a return to colleges and universities, with widespread testing taking place on campuses, has driven an uptick in known cases. More than 88,000 cases of the coronavirus have been reported across more than 1,100 American colleges over the course of the pandemic, a New York Times survey shows.
Transmission on campuses would be expected to be less lethal among students, but experts fear that those cases could lead to wider, more dangerous outbreaks as young people interact with professors, family members and neighbors.
And indeed, metropolitan areas where the virus has been increasing the fastest included places with significant college outbreaks: La Crosse, Wis., home of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Viterbo University and Western Technical College; State College, Pa., home of Pennsylvania State University’s main campus; and Gainesville, Fla., home to the University of Florida. Other college towns also reported staggering rises, including Provo, Utah, and Manhattan, Kan.
“If this spike continues, it will strain our systems to the breaking point,” Andrew P. Manion, the president of Edgewood College in Madison, Wis., wrote in a letter imploring students to follow social distancing rules following a rise in cases. “The short-term gain of going to a party comes at the cost of making more people sick. If this trend continues I will make the painful but necessary decision to complete the semester via fully remote classes, and residence halls and offices will close for the semester.”
The first months of the pandemic brought floods of cases into urban, coastal areas of the United States, but the virus is spreading broadly now, through rural communities and to places that had seen few if any cases early on. States in the nation’s middle, including Wisconsin, Montana and North Dakota, are seeing higher case numbers in recent days than ever.