(Jacob Moscovitch/The Beacon)

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In the last few weeks, Kansas and Missouri university students have returned to campus, bringing thousands of COVID-19 cases to college towns. 

“We expected to have some increase. I don’t think we expected it to be so much, so fast,” said Ashton Day, a spokesperson for the Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services Department, where the University of Missouri – Columbia is located.

Now, universities and local health departments have been implementing new policies to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, with mixed criticism and results. Meanwhile, the increase in positive cases in college students, and the new safety regulations that come with them, continue to affect the surrounding communities.

In Boone County, Missouri, and Douglas County, Kansas, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in people under age 24 is more than double the number of cases among all the other age groups combined. In Riley County, Kansas, it’s more than triple.

Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, took preventative measures to try to limit the spread of COVID-19 on campus, such as having fewer students living in residence halls, staggering move-ins of students, providing dry hydrogen peroxide machines for students with roommates, and moving around furniture in public spaces. The administration also required students to wear masks, made sure classes were only occurring in rooms where social distancing was possible and put hand sanitizer at the entrances to all buildings.

Despite all of this preparation, the number of K-State students with COVID-19 still spiked in the first few weeks of classes, a pattern that occurred at other Kansas and Missouri universities, such as the University of Kansas in Lawrence and the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Students give universities’ COVID-19 policies an ‘F’

Colleges have created online COVID-19 dashboards to help inform students and the public about outbreaks on campus, although they are limited in the type of information they can provide due to patient privacy laws. Colleges that receive funding from the Department of Education are held to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and their health centers are held to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. This means they can’t release any information that would make a student publicly identifiable, except for in a state of emergency to protect the student or the public. However, some schools could be using these laws as an excuse to hold back information.

There are no standards or laws on what information regarding positive COVID-19 cases universities should make publicly available. K-State’s dashboard includes information on cumulative cases, weekly testing data and students in quarantine. KU’s dashboard also includes information on clinic visits and hotline calls, and initially it contained information about cases in Greek Life organizations. At first, Mizzou’s dashboard had just three categories: active student cases, percent of student body and recovered. They have since updated it to include total student cases and total hospitalizations.

“I think it’s really weak,” said Melina Psihountas, a strategic communications student. “The ‘percent of student body’ number is really misleading because it’s such a low number. I think a graph showing how that percentage has changed would be more informative.”

A spokesperson for Mizzou, Christian Basi, said the university refers people to the Boone County dashboard. “We do not help the community by providing information only on campus,” Basi said.

Universities have received criticism from students on their COVID-19 policies. Some KU students have participated in a strike to protest the campus opening, and a ‘die-in,’ both of which were organized by a club called the Jayhawker Liberation Front. Twitter accounts such as University of Misery have compiled student complaints, such as Mizzou’s president blocking students on Twitter and students in quarantine not receiving food over Labor Day weekend.

Psihountas has several concerns related to Mizzou’s COVID-19 policies.  

“Other schools, like University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have testing where every student has to be tested multiple times a week. I think there needs to be more testing, testing without a referral, and the ability to have a saliva test,” she said.

Psihountas also mentions that the university required them to download an app called Campus Clear, which has a 1.7 star rating on the Google App Store, that was meant to help screen students for symptoms and provide access to campus buildings. She says it hasn’t been used by any of her classes.

KU student Jam Hoffman, vice president of the Jayhawker Liberation Front, which is “working for the liberation of people through the dismantling of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy at KU and beyond,” doesn’t think the university has been doing enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“The steps that KU has taken to track the virus on campus are abysmal. KU has no real testing or contact tracing remige that is more than cosmetic,” Hoffman said. 

KU has voluntary check-ins on an app called CVKey that isn’t used, Hoffman said, and that KU’s random testing policy can’t prevent the spread of COVID-19. Unlike other universities that are handling contact tracing on campus, KU’s contact tracing is voluntary and conducted through the Douglas County Health Department, which means that positive COVID-19 cases on campus could potentially have no follow-up.

“KU’s campus shouldn’t be open at all,” Hoffman said. “You’ve probably heard about the huge parties being thrown off campus in Lawrence, and having an open campus and in person classes is just another avenue for spread.”

Managing the covid caseload

Meanwhile, health departments have taken on an increased burden of contact tracing, even with universities handling the contact tracing for on-campus students.

“We had 221 cases in one day, which was a record high for us. That was coming after several days of triple-digit numbers,” said Day, about Boone County. The county has been onboarding new contact tracers. 

“We’re managing the caseload the best that we can,” Day said.

Local governments have stepped up their regulations in response to the increase of COVID-19 cases in the student population, hoping to slow the spread. Boone County restricted social gatherings to 20 people and ordered restaurants, bars and entertainment venues to stop serving alcohol at 9 p.m. and to close by 10 p.m., although they recently relaxed these rules. Riley County prohibited gatherings of over 50 people, limited restaurants and bars to socially distant seated area service, and ordered bars and restaurants to close by midnight.

“There has been concern that younger, positive patients as time goes by, will inevitably spread to more vulnerable people who are outside of that age group. We certainly hope that doesn’t happen,” said Vivienne Uccello, a spokesperson for the City of Manhattan

She said while some people think not enough is being done to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their community, others think too much is being done.

“Whether you live on or off campus, you’re working in our town, and shopping and eating, and visiting all of these different places, so (students) are a big part of the community,” Day said.

College towns ‘in a tough spot’

College students are part of the economy in college towns, serving as both employees and patrons of local businesses. The large number of cases among college students has left its impact on local businesses.

“These students are going out to businesses, whether it be my place, or whether it be a college bar, whether they have COVID-19 or not, and they’re going to spread it,” said Jake Voegeli, co-owner of Manhattan Brewing Company. He says that while his customer base tends to skew older, his business is still affected.

“I know that community members are concerned about it, and I know a lot of them don’t go out because of that, which hurts businesses like ourselves,” Voegeli said. 

Manhattan Brewery is a member of MHK Safe and Open and has pledged to follow the city of Manhattan’s safety guidelines. But not all businesses have been following rules, which could contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in students off-campus.

“The biggest problem has been the college bars. That’s how they thrive, is off college students coming in. They were defying city ordinances for masks and how late they stay open and because of that, all of a sudden we saw these huge spikes and increases in cases,” Voegeli said.

The city of Manhattan temporarily closed O’Malley’s, a popular college dive bar, for not following the local health order and citywide mask ordinance. Uccello said the business was able to submit a plan for how it was going to come into compliance and reopen within a few days.

“When the city comes through and puts their foot down like that, it only helps businesses that do the right thing, and I’m really glad they did it,” said Voegeli.

Other businesses are worried about what the effects would be if colleges were to move online and students were to start leaving town.

“University towns are in a tough spot,” said Evan Grier, co-founder of One Egg Group, a Manhattan business that employs college students. “The university is a significant economic driver for many small businesses in our community, and at the same time our students are also the most social demographic — thus the increase in COVID-19 cases, which no one wants to see.”

The high number of positive COVID-19 cases among returning college students in Columbia affected the community by changing the method of schooling for their children. Initially, it appeared elementary, middle school and high school students would be attending hybrid classes, which are a mix of in-person and distance learning. But COVID-19 cases surpassed the 14-day case rate limit of 50, which is the predetermined threshold at which classes had to be moved online.

“A lot of people, rightfully so, were very upset because that changed their way of life for families. They had to figure out child care and doing virtual school,” Uccello said.

However, while college students have the highest transmission in college towns, other age groups and community members are still contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

“The trends are not only only in the 18 to 24 age group,” Uccello said. “We are seeing trends in other areas. It’s not just the college students. That’s not accurate.”

Brittany Callan is the health and environment reporter at The Beacon and a Report for America corps member. You can reach Brittany at brittany@thebeacon.media. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.

Brittany Callan is the health and environment reporter at The Beacon and a Report for America corps member. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.