Colleges push for more testing as COVID-19 cases rise on campuses

08/24/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia State University undergraduate Mayra Morales (left) hands a student a Georgia State University printed mask during the first day of classes at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Monday, August 24, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Some outbreaks traced to Greek life groups

Georgia’s public universities stepped up their COVID-19 testing efforts Monday as some schools reported their highest numbers yet of students diagnosed with the disease.

Georgia College, in Milledgeville, on Monday reported 69 new student cases, tied for its highest single-day total since it began tracking the data in June. Georgia Tech on Sunday reported 51 new student cases, its highest single-day total since it began tracking the data in April.

Both schools, and others in Georgia, have noted the totals have included people who were off-campus when diagnosed. Georgia College officials said the numbers include tests from previous days in which the results had not been reported.

On Saturday, Georgia Tech’s Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity posted a message on Instagram that it was on lockdown to non-residents after an outbreak among members. A total of nine Greek houses are limiting access to residents, officials said Monday.

The school sent a message to all students Sunday encouraging them to get tested, and last week added a third testing site on campus.

“It is critically important that all members of the campus community get tested weekly,” it read, in part.

The fraternity urged other Greek organizations to share their results, saying “Now is the time to step up and do the right thing.”

On Monday, Georgia State University began its fall semester with a similar message from administrators and student government leaders to get tested and follow social distancing guidelines. An estimated 54,000 students are taking classes this semester, the largest enrollment of any university in Georgia.

ExploreFirst day of classes for Georgia State University

The push to encourage students to get tested comes amid complaints that Georgia’s public universities were inadequately prepared for the return of classes. Critics contend the schools do not have the capability to consistently test everyone on campus, and that safety rules requiring social distancing and preventing group gatherings are almost impossible to enforce.

Conversely, a growing number of parents are voicing their support for in-person learning. They say the media and critics are stirring panic about the confirmed cases, arguing those infected represent a small percentage of student bodies and saying few cases appear severe. Surveillance test results at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech have shown that 0.38% and 1.22%, of their respectively tested students and employees have tested positive for the virus.

“We feel confident that with the proper precautions the University System of Georgia is taking along with the Kennesaw State administration, school is a safe place for our kids and it is where the students should be,” parent Gretchen Daly wrote to university and system administrators. She shared the comments with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Some Georgia colleges and universities have not posted how many students or employees have been diagnosed. Federal law prohibits the schools from disclosing the severity of individual cases.

The schools have imposed social distancing requirements in student housing, but say they have little oversight over COVID-19 prevention methods in fraternity and sorority houses because they are off campus. Some Greek organizations have conducted in-person rush activities that critics say bear a portion of the responsibility for the spread of the disease on campuses like Georgia College. By contrast, Emory University, Georgia’s largest private institution, has said all student club and organization activities will be held virtually for the fall semester. Georgia College’s president Steve Dorman warned students Monday they could be suspended if they attend house parties and large gatherings that could spread the virus.

At Georgia State, students were tested before moving in on-campus housing. Many didn’t want to live on campus this semester, officials have said, and the number of students in campus housing has declined from about 5,500 last year to an estimated 3,000 this year.

More than one-half of Georgia State’s classes are fully online, officials said, and students were polled during the summer about their preferences.

“Many of them wanted a class, but not all their classes (in person),” said Michael Sanseviro, its dean of students.

On Georgia State’s main campus in downtown Atlanta, the vibe was subdued Monday. The typical throngs of students walking to and from class on Decatur Street was down to a trickle. Enrollment continued Monday as returning students waited in line at the student center for face masks and other items.

08/24/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia State University Assistant Director of Academic Advisement Kenneth Meier (second from left) assist Georgia State University undergrad David Cardwell III (left) at the student center during the first day of classes at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Monday, August 24, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Jenifer Nguyen, 22, a senior majoring in economics, said it was quieter on campus Monday. Only one of her five classes are in person. Sporting a blue face mask with the university’s name on it, Nguyen said she felt Georgia State took measures to make her feel safe on campus, such as limiting seating in the center’s cafeteria to one person per table.

Nguyen suggested administrators do more to publicize where students can get tested for COVID-19, saying she didn’t know where the tests were offered.

“It’s just the new normal,” she said of being back on campus. “I’ll readjust where I can.”

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