College Towns Faced With COVID-19 Cases And How To Keep Community Safe

College towns have had to come up with ways to keep students and faculty safe, but cases have continued to go up.
Posted at 8:02 PM, Sep 10, 2020

Like many college towns across America, the University of Missouri-Columbia is seeing a spike in coronavirus cases with school back in session and students on campus... and in the community.

College towns have had to come up with ways to keep students and faculty safe. That includes smaller class sizes and wearing masks on campus.

"I feel pretty safe in my classes, it's all spaced out," Jacob Rissman, a junior at the University of Missouri in Columbia, said. 

"I am kind of surprised, though, we haven't gone fully online, but I mean they want to give us the college experience as best as they can," Mae Cross, a freshmen at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said.

But despite these added requirements in place, cases across the country have gone up. A New York Times report says Columbia ranks in the top 20 "metro areas with the greatest number of new cases, relative to their population." It has ranked as high as 6th. Every one of the top 20 are college towns. 

As of Thursday, the Public Health and Human Services Department for Boone County, where the University of Missouri is located, said there are 963 active coronavirus cases in Boone County. More than half of those cases are students. And that creates community concerns, as well.

"Students in this town are out in the community," Scott Clardy, the assistant director for Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services, said. "They're shopping in our retail establishments, they're eating in our restaurants and they're working in areas around the community. So, they’re spreading virus to other people outside of students, outside of Mizzou and outside of that age group."

And that's a challenge. Because being in the community is part of the college experience. That includes parties and favorite gathering spots off-campus. Bars and restaurants can remain open, but stop serving alcohol at 9 p.m.

"We're saying we're bringing them back so they can experience the real college experience," Damon Kiesow, the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing for the Missouri School of Journalism, said. "Well, the real college experience isn't just classes. So we're giving them permission to come back and be students, but only if they don't do everything that students usually do."

The county has a contact tracing program in place and is also working with the university on this. They have 30 so-called "disease investigators" and "contact tracers" that track positive cases. Ideally, Clardy says, they'd like to have 54 if funding becomes available.

"So with the disease investigators, our goal is to get in contact with all of those positive cases in about 24-48 hours after we get the result, after we get the positive lab," Clardy said. "We're not meeting that goal right now. We're at about 5-6 days before we're in contact with them."

Health officials say students and others who are tested for potential COVID-19 symptoms should self-isolate until they know they're in the clear. Meanwhile, many students are just happy to be back on campus. 

"I think they're doing the best with what they've been given," Rissman said. "Because I think in terms of what to do no one actually really knows. So they are taking the safety precautions to make sure that people do feel safe on campus but also that we still get that learning experience."