Georgia colleges battle to slow rise in COVID-19 cases

Students make their way in Athens as the University of Georgia starts classes for the fall semester on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Students make their way in Athens as the University of Georgia starts classes for the fall semester on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia’s largest public universities continued Thursday, with mixed results, their push to slow the spread of COVID-19 on their campuses as several schools reported an increase in students diagnosed with the disease.

Georgia College, for example, reported Thursday 48 new confirmed student cases, its highest single-day total. Thirty-six students were diagnosed Wednesday. Twenty-five the day before.

The University of North Georgia, where video of an off-campus party Saturday with throngs of maskless students made national headlines, reported 49 cases over the last seven days, its highest seven-day total. Classes there began Monday. The University of Georgia on Wednesday reported 47 cases over the prior seven days. Classes there began Thursday.

Officials at the colleges and universities stress that some people were off-campus when diagnosed and self-reported the positive test results.

Meanwhile, Georgia Tech reported no new cases Wednesday, the first day in more than a week it hadn’t disclosed any students or employees diagnosed.

Students sit inside Tate Student Center while socially distanced and wearing protective face masks as the University of Georgia starts classes for the fall semester on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Students sit inside Tate Student Center while socially distanced and wearing protective face masks as the University of Georgia starts classes for the fall semester on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

As several public colleges in other states switch to remote learning, Georgia leaders are pleading for students to follow social distancing guidelines off-campus and wear masks in places where they’re required.

“Wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a tweet Thursday to UGA students.

The schools are also ramping up testing. Some are doing it on their own while others are working with businesses and laboratories to conduct voluntary testing.

There was some confusion and criticism Thursday concerning how the schools conduct testing and report their data. Some Georgia College students were unsure where to get tested. Officials at the Milledgeville school said Thursday it is partnering with state health department officials to offer testing at the local health department, two CVS pharmacies and some private facilities.

Meanwhile, several University System of Georgia institutions are not posting case totals. System spokesman Aaron Diamant said the office directed its schools “that they should provide information they feel is most appropriate for their campus community” that complies with student privacy laws.

Georgia State University, which had about 53,000 students last year, more than any school in the state, said in a statement Thursday it is still implementing its testing plan and “will determine how this information will be most helpful for the university community.” Georgia Southern University hopes to start posting its numbers online next week.

Kennesaw State University, which estimates it may have about 40,000 students this year, is not posting case information and said in a statement its focus “is on notifying and assisting all individuals who may be at risk on our campus.” The university’s United Campus Workers of Georgia chapter said in a statement withholding such data is a “severe threat to public health.”

“How are we going to gauge the safety level on campus?” asked Ruthana-Leafy Wilson, an undergraduate student who works at the university and is a chapter member.

At the University of Georgia, officials tested students at a facility in the center of the campus. Less than 1% of the nearly 800 surveillance tests conducted in a recent weeklong stretch came back positive, officials said.

Nearby, at the Bolton Dining Hall, only students were allowed to get meals as part of its social distancing rules. UGA officials set up takeout dining entrances and a way for students to order meals on their smartphones to reduce potential COVID-19 exposure.

“We’re looking at creative opportunities (to serve students) and adjusting the plans as we go,” said Bryan Varin, executive director of Bolton’s dining services.

A medical worker wearing protective gear collects swabs from a student at COVID Surveillance Asymptomatic Testing center at Legion Field as the University of Georgia starts classes for the fall semester on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
A medical worker wearing protective gear collects swabs from a student at COVID Surveillance Asymptomatic Testing center at Legion Field as the University of Georgia starts classes for the fall semester on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

There were fewer students on the Athens campus Thursday as many students are taking some or all of their classes online.

Miles Calderon, 20, a junior philosophy major, who took a COVID-19 test on campus, was critical of the decision to reopen the campus. He’s seen images on social media of large groups of classmates gathering that could compromise their health. Calderon believes the university will soon go to online learning.

“I just don’t feel like it was wise,” Calderon said of the return.

First-year students Jen Teal and Abbie Reid, both 18 and from Carrollton, were excited to be on campus, but disappointed that many of their classes are online. They said it’s tougher to meet friends and get involved in activities, but they’re trying.

“I think you have to work harder to have fun,” Reid said.

COVID-19 CASES

Here’s a breakdown of how many students and employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19 at Georgia’s largest public universities since the pandemic began in March. Some people were diagnosed off-campus, but required to report their diagnosis to the school.

College/University Cases

University of Georgia 504

Georgia Tech 196

Georgia College 165

University of North Georgia 134

Georgia State University 107

Kennesaw State University 68

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