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Spring Semester Brings In-Person Classes And COVID-19 Spikes For Some Colleges


Spring semester is underway for colleges, and students have returned to campus. So, too, has the coronavirus. For some schools, that means they've pushed back the start date for in-person classes. Others are enforcing lockdowns on students. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joins us now to catch us up. Welcome back, Elissa.


CORNISH: Start by giving us a sense of what college even looks like this spring.

NADWORNY: So more than a quarter of colleges have some in-person element - so students back on campus or face-to-face classes. And as you said, campuses are seeing a lot of positive coronavirus cases. On some campuses, they've seen more cases in the first two weeks of spring semester than they did all fall. And the new variants are also showing up in the student population, so that's worrisome.

CORNISH: How are campuses handling that?

NADWORNY: Well, the most common reaction to the rise in cases is a lockdown, asking students not to leave their dorms except for necessities or COVID tests. The University of California Berkeley, which found the U.K. variant through sequencing - they extended their two-week lockdown for a third week. I caught up with Adam Ahmad - he's a freshman living on campus there - and asked him what it's been like.

ADAM AHMAD: You have some students in the dorms who are adhering to the T who have not left their dorm except to get food for a week and a half now. Personally, I cannot do that. My own mental health is more important. I'm not going to go into a group that has 15 people, but will I congregate with a group of three other individuals who I know have been tested within the past 48 hours and who are wearing masks and who are socially distanced? Yes.

CORNISH: Sounds like this is not uncommon thinking. He sounds a little exhausted by the whole thing.

NADWORNY: Yeah. And complacency among students is definitely an issue.

CORNISH: Are there things that schools learned this fall that they're going to use this semester to try and control case numbers?

NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, campuses are definitely getting better at this. You know, those lockdowns are a great example. We did - we learned last fall it's much safer to shelter in place than to send students home. The other big lesson we learned was testing and how important it is, and many colleges have increased their testing capacity despite the high price tag to do so. Take the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They now have mandatory testing once a week for all students. Here's Carmen Richardson. She's a sophomore studying nursing there.

CARMEN RICHARDSON: You know, it gives me hope that, like, now everyone can get tested on campus really easily. And, you know, people who do have to go to campus have to get tested. To get into buildings, you have to be tested. But, I mean, we're still so far from where we need to be.

NADWORNY: Carmen is actually one of the few students I've talked to that has received the vaccine. And that's really the next push for campuses - to get their communities vaccinated. Some states have started to vaccinate professors and staff, but as Carmen said, we're still a long way to go. We still got a long way to go.

CORNISH: What do we know about students taking online classes?

NADWORNY: So about 40% of colleges are primarily online. But it's important to remember that even the colleges that have brought students back to campus - a lot of them have many virtual classes. So I talked with Noelle Johnson. She's a freshman at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She's in a dorm, but all her classes are online, and she says it can be kind of lonely.

NOELLE JOHNSON: People keep to themselves. And it's, like, so strange because there's, like, a hundred people on my floor, and half the time, I never see them. Like, I'll go in, and I'm like, OK, I'm going to brush my teeth. Maybe I'll see someone. And the bathroom will be empty. It just feels so empty. But I know there's so many people here, and I just want to know where they are.

NADWORNY: And this is a student who told me before she started college that she had hoped to have a friend from every major. So she's a social person. It's just a very different experience than a lot of students imagined it would be.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny. She covers higher ed and will be visiting more campuses this spring, part of an NPR college road trip. We look forward to that. Thanks so much, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.