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Tulane Announces Plans For In-Person Spring As COVID-19 Cases Remain Low

Paula Burch-Celentano
Tulane University
A classroom inside Tulane University's Woldenberg Hall. Masks are mandatory on campus as well as city-wide.

Tulane University announced Friday that students will be allowed to return for in-person classes this spring, but will still be subject to regular COVID-19 testing in a continued effort to control the spread of the virus.

“We have and will surely continue to encounter difficulties in the months ahead, but we remain committed to creating opportunities for our community to learn, live, work and teach in person and on campus,” President Michael A. Fitts said in a letter to the Tulane community.

Before returning to campus in August, all students were screened for COVID-19 at an off-campus arrival center. Since then, the entire campus community has been subject to regular testing. The university has one of the most rigorous testing plans in the country.

Tulane’s undergraduates receive the most regular testing. Weekly tests became biweekly after a spike in cases in late August and early September. The curve has since flattened and on Friday, the university dropped its COVID-19 alert level from orange to yellow.

More than 13,000 students attend Tulane. About 3,600 are undergraduates who live on campus. Since the university started its testing program in late July, they've conducted nearly 85,000 tests and have an overall positivity rate of 1.1 percent.

Their seven-day average is even lower at 0.5 percent. For context, the city’s seven-day average is 1.1 percent and the state’s is 4.1 percent.

But while testing is seen as both a way to track community spread and prevent it (by mobilizing contact tracing efforts), some students argue that overtesting can have the opposite effect.

In an op-ed for the Tulane Hullabaloo, the university’s student newspaper, Deeya Patel writes that “frequent testing intensifies a false sense of security.”

“But, why would you not see your friends and go to bars when you receive bi-weekly emails stating you have tested negative for COVID-19?,” Patel writes. “Frequent testing intensifies a false sense of security. After being exposed to COVID-19, one can still test negative, but show symptoms and have a positive result later on.”

That’s why people who have close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus are required to quarantine even if they receive a negative test result.

Patel argues that “increasing the number of weekly tests means nothing if students cannot comply with social distancing guidelines and the public health protocols enforced by the university.”

And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that at least some students are flouting COVID-19 restrictions.

Last week, Dean of Students Eria Woodley wrote to students reminding them to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions, after receiving “many reports of really egregious misconduct.”

“Reports included everything from house parties and partying in the French Quarter and on Tchoupitoulas to neighbors reporting that students are not wearing masks on campus,” Woodley said in the email. “Some behaviors were not only in disregard to our clearly communicated policies but were also in violation of those of the city of New Orleans. Many students involved will face suspension or expulsion.”

Woodley said that university leaders have also noticed a decrease in mask wearing, but an increase in “disrespectful and uncooperative responses when asking students to wear masks.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell vowed this week to crack down on policy violators in the form of a $500 fine. The city is also working to address Bourbon Street crowds, which they’ve referred to as “unacceptable.”

Students have also highlighted their peers’ misconduct in several Tulane Hullabaloo op-eds. One argues that Tulane’s party culture has survived in the form of “house parties, happy hours and crowded picnics.”

Another op-ed argues that some students “simply do not care” about coronavirus guidelines.

“Whether it is students who view enforcing COVID-19 guidelines as a violation of their rights or those who are simply reckless, there is an obvious lack of effort by some students to contain the spread of the virus,” Domenic Mesa writes.

Overall, Woodley said that the majority of students continue to adhere to both city and campus restrictions. While many colleges and universities have had to shut down mid-semester and send students home, Woodley said Tulane’s success is a testament to student conduct.

Tulane’s first day of spring classes is set for Jan. 19 and students are scheduled to return a week earlier for mandatory COVID-19 testing. The university’s off-campus screening center will begin operations on Jan. 8.

Fitts said protocols will remain much the same this spring and stressed that the university isn’t letting its guard down.

“All of our health safety protocols, including face coverings, social distancing, hand hygiene and restrictions on large gatherings will continue as before — they are the means that keep us safe,” Fitts said.

Biweekly testing will continue for undergraduates, and graduate and professional students will be tested every other week.

But there are some changes. While there will be no spring break (fall break was also canceled to discourage students from traveling and potentially contracting the virus), the university will observe Carnival break for two days in February.

Final exams will also be in-person, while fall exams are set to occur virtually. The last day of classes is May 3 and in-person commencement is scheduled for May 22.

“These are the broad brushstrokes of our upcoming semester. There will be many more details to come in following weeks and all of our plans are contingent on local, state and federal safety recommendations and requirements,” Fitts said.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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