With COVID-19 the worst it’s been, Louisiana’s college students return to campus

A photo of Keeny Hall at Louisiana Tech University from September 2016. (Creative Commons license)

Students at Louisiana’s colleges and universities return to school this month in a state that has more COVID-19 cases than it has ever had — and with all signs indicating that things are going to get worse. In response, some colleges have required students to provide a negative test before returning to campus — and one at least one university is choosing to start the spring semester fully online.

Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough said Thursday that because New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has returned the city to what she calls a “modified Phase 1” that Dillard “is doing the first two weeks online and then moving back to hybrid (if) the city leaves modified phase 1.”

If the city stays in its current phase, Kimbrough said, “we will probably stay online, but students are able to live on campus.”

During a Tuesday press conference,  Dr. Joe Kanter, the state’s top public health officer, said, “There’s never been more COVID in Louisiana than there is now.” And he was pessimistic about what’s coming.  “We know that all the transmission that occurred over New Year’s, for example, and the subsequent second and third generation transmissions from that have not come yet,” Kanter said.

On Wednesday, the state reported Wednesday that 13.5 percent of COVID-19 tests were positive for the virus, a rate nearly twice as high as the positivity rate in late August when the Fall 2020 semester. Despite the near doubling of the positivity rate, most universities in the state are duplicating last semester’s plans for the spring semester.

Rebecca Christofferson, an assistant professor and infectious disease expert at LSU, said with a full semester of the pandemic behind them, colleges and universities will be more prepared to contain outbreaks and prevent community spread.

“There’s a lot of lessons learned in the fall that I think campuses will take forward into the spring,” she said. University officials have to balance the need to slow down community spread with their desire to avoid interrupting their students’ education, she said. 

According to a Jan. 8 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, counties that are home to universities with at least 20,000 students experienced a 56 percent increase in COVID-19 cases after students showed up for in-person instruction. In contrast, counties with large universities that primarily offered classes remotely saw, during that same period, an 18 percent decrease in COVID-19 cases.

Louisiana State University and Louisiana Tech University have already begun in-person instruction for the Spring 2021 semester without major changes to the COVID-19 policies that existed last semester, officials from those campuses report. 

Tonya Oaks Smith, executive communications director for Louisiana Tech, said the university encouraged students, faculty and staff to get tested for COVID-19 before returning to campus, but the university is only requiring negative tests for a select few.

“There are groups of students, like our aviation students for example, who, if they’re going to fly, they need a negative test,” Smith said. “Because they’re in a plane. They’re close. They can’t distance appropriately.”

Louisiana Tech’s student-athletes and cheerleaders are also tested frequently in order to compete and perform, she said.

“We will continue our established health and safety measures along with robust contact tracing to help slow the spread of the virus,” Smith said.

Southern University students, who started moving back into residence halls on Wednesday, had to first provide a negative COVID-19 test dated between Jan. 7 and Jan. 12, according to Janene Tate, a spokesperson for the university. Negative tests were only required for students living in residence halls, she said.

“That’s the only major change,” Tate said of the university’s rules this semester. “And of course continuing to monitor and follow directives from the Board of Regents and the state.”

Ernie Ballard, media relations director for LSU, said LSU will not have  many major changes heading into their spring semester, but will conduct “sentinel testing,” meaning every two weeks, a random sample of the student population will be required to get tested for COVID-19.

Loyola University New Orleans and Tulane University will begin in-person instruction next week, and both schools will require a negative test from students returning to campus. Tulane also requires students to isolate for five to seven days before traveling.

Tulane hired more “COVID support personnel” and made improvements to its plans to quarantine or isolate people who test positive and their close contacts, the university said in a letter sent to students during winter break. Tulane has also closed its campus to visitors and restricted visitation in residence halls.

Patricia Murret, associate director of public affairs for Loyola, said all the university’s precautions and guidelines remain the same as they were in 2020.

“We are in close touch with the city and state health departments,” Murret said. “And prepared to flex to virtual learning if and when it is needed.”

Christofferson said she has “no idea” what it would take for colleges and universities to move completely online this semester like some campuses across the country did last semester.

“There’s been several times where I look at things, and I’m like, ‘Ah, this will do it,’ and it doesn’t,” Christofferson said. She said factors beyond the amount of positive COVID-19 cases within a community play into whether a university should move fully online or not.

Ballard said LSU doesn’t “necessarily have a tipping point, but will continue to review all the methods we have to measure: wastewater, testing on campus, symptom checker, sentinel testing, etc.”

He said there are options other than a complete shift to virtual learning. For example, if a large concentration of positive tests are coming from a specific residence hall, “there could be options to keep some students attending in person, while students in other programs go remote for an amount of time.”

“It’s really looking at everything and accessing the best way to go forward, following consultation with medical personnel and our researchers who are assisting,” Ballard said.

Kimbrough, Dillard’s president, assessing the university’s performance keeping people on campus safe, said, “It has gone really well. Even the positives have been isolated quickly so we didn’t have any major outbreaks.”

Editor Jarvis DeBerry contributed to this report.