US colleges struggle to salvage semester amid outbreaks

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A fan sits among cardboard cutouts of other fans before the first half of an NCAA college football game between Mississippi and Florida in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)

MADISON, Wis. – Colleges across the country are struggling to salvage the fall semester amid skyrocketing coronavirus cases, entire dorm complexes and frat houses under quarantine, and flaring tensions with local community leaders over the spread of the disease.

Many major universities are determined to forge ahead despite warning signs, as evidenced by the expanding slate of college football games occurring Saturday. The football-obsessed SEC begins its season with fans in stadiums. Several teams in other leagues have had to postpone games because of outbreaks among players and staff.

Institutions across the nation saw spikes of thousands of cases days after opening their doors in the last month, driven by students socializing with little or no social distancing. School and community leaders have tried to rein in the virus by closing bars, suspending students, adding mask requirements, and toggling between in-person and online instruction as case numbers rise and fall.

Tension over the outbreaks is starting to boil over in college towns.

Faculty members from at least two universities have held no-confidence votes in recent weeks against their top leaders, in part over reopening decisions. Government leaders want the University of Wisconsin-Madison to send its students home. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, alarmed by what he sees as draconian rules on college campuses, said he is drawing up a “bill of rights” for college students.

In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, this week blamed outbreaks at two colleges for a surge of virus cases that boosted the state's infection rate high enough to put it on the list of places whose residents are required to quarantine when traveling to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison had seen more than 2,800 confirmed cases in students as of Friday. The school shut down in-person instruction for two weeks, locked down two of its largest dorms, and imposed quarantines on more than a dozen sorority and fraternity houses. The school lifted the dorm lockdown just this week.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has demanded the university sent all its students home for the rest of the academic year.