If being kicked out of college for a semester isn’t shameful enough, 11 students tossed from Northeastern University on Friday and their parents are out $36,534. That’s how much it costs to participate in the “N.U.in Program,” which usually involves some study abroad but was modified this year due to COVID-19. And that money, according to a Northeastern news site, “will not be refundable.”
The students were staying at the Westin Hotel — not bad digs, especially for college kids. But even with that bit of luxury, according to the university, they couldn’t resist the temptation to get together in someone’s room last Wednesday night, in violation of state and college rules. A couple of staff members making the rounds discovered the gathering.
“Testing negative for COVID-19 is not enough,” said Madeleine Estabrook, Northeastern’s senior vice chancellor for student affairs. “We must practice all of the public health guidelines in order to keep ourselves and our community healthy. Together, we can keep each other safe, but it will require everyone’s consistent cooperation.”
And so it is at this pivotal moment in the trajectory of a pandemic: We are at each other’s mercy for our collective health and safety. Wear your mask and practice social distancing, if not for your own safety, then for the other person.
A return to campus throughout the country has brought one reminder after another of how quickly things can go south. The incident at Northeastern, at this point, is not an outbreak but only an example of college kids doing what college kids are wont to do, and a university that slammed them with a heavy — and expensive — punishment.
In New York this past week, the entire state university campus in Oneonta was shut down for the semester due to a coronavirus bloom. The college had reopened not a week earlier, bringing back a limited number of students and launching a blend of online and in-person classes.
SUNY officials say students who attended a large party without taking precautions kicked up the COVID-19 case count in Oneonta, leading to an outbreak in the dormitories. By Thursday the campus was reporting 507 cases of COVID-19 — about 13% of the number of students staying on campus. SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras described it as an example of how “a small minority can ruin it for everyone else.”
The same story seems to be playing on a loop. At Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the state’s flagship university sent students home just a matter of days after bringing them back to campus as positive COVID-19 cases soared to nearly 14% of those tested. Officials at the University of Illinois begged students to stop partying as the college counted more than 700 positive cases not long after the campus reopened, according to Bloomberg.
These lessons — of the importance of wearing masks, social distancing and taking precautions against COVID-19 — aren’t just the province of college kids. As students from kindergarten through high school return to class -- albeit on limited schedules, in many cases -- these steps will be critical to ensuring that our public schools don’t become hothouses of coronavirus.
Over this long Labor Day weekend, health officials worried that people celebrating summer’s unofficial end would drop their guard, getting together for parties and cookouts and trips to the beach without the benefit of masks or 6 feet of separation. Time will tell if their fears of a surge of COVID-19 will be realized.
The only way to ensure that none of these happen, and to stave off that dreaded second wave of COVID-19, is through collective action.
We all must take responsibility to protect ourselves, and each other.