University of Wyoming officials had high hopes for phasing students back into the classroom, but those hopes were dashed when large numbers of positive COVID-19 tests started coming in.
As of Thursday, September 10, the university had 66 active cases. And 63 of those were students, 50 of whom live off-campus.
Off-campus parties hosted and attended by UW students have contributed to several of the confirmed infections and placed well over 100 students in quarantine.
Since classes are online, the university has offered students the chance to withdraw and receive a full refund on their tuition - but many students, including freshman Ethan Allagnon, are going to stay.
"Honestly if they had announced this during the summer, I probably would have ended up taking a gap year because that's what I had agreed with my parents," he said. "I mean, I've already started classes. I'm probably going to stick it out and just see how it goes."
Allagnon said it's disappointing that other students have acted so recklessly, especially since he's been so careful.
"It sucks," he said. "I'll be straight forward. We as students can definitely see what the cause is. We live in the dorms and right across from the frat houses, and we always see them hosting parties and stuff. It's safer to be in the dorms."
According to university officials, many of the current cases were tied to off-campus parties attended by students and members of the university's Greek life community. Health authorities say those who attended were not following mandated health guidelines.
That information hurts for Allagnon, who has been reprimanded for seeing hallmates in his dorm floor's common room - and even for playing ultimate frisbee outside while unmasked.
"I wish they would crack down more on the actual cause, instead of really getting strict with us," Allagnon said. "You know, we're being safe."
UW student Taryn Paradis also thought she was being safe, until she tested positive.
"Before getting it, I was like, 'people aren't taking it seriously' - and then I realized I wasn't taking it seriously," she said. "I still was kind of hanging out with some of my friends because I hadn't seen them in a super long time."
Paradis hosted several friends at her apartment a few times during the first weeks of the semester. As an off-campus student, she said it was easy to disregard the warnings and guidance coming from the university.
"And it's not something that I intentionally did," she said. "I wasn't going out, thinking, 'Oh, I hope the university doesn't hear about this.' It was more along the lines of, 'Oh, I just haven't seen these people in months. It would be nice to catch up.' And so I could have taken the warnings more seriously than I did. And that is my fault."
Paradis said she hasn't heard anything about academic consequences for violating the student code of conduct. But the university could crackdown on students for hosting parties, according to Ryan O'Neil, the university's Dean of Students. And those consequences could be very serious.
"The potential outcome of any student found responsible for hosting a large social gathering could include up to suspension or dismissal from the university," she said. "Obviously we would want to consider all the mitigating factors - context is important - but it has been determined that that level of sanction or conduct outcome would be appropriate should a student be found responsible."
The Student Code of Conduct outlines how UW responds to reported incidents. They'll consider evidence, conduct an investigation and eventually meet with the student.
If the student accepts responsibility, the university will work with them on improving their decision-making. There could also be a hearing that could lead to sanctions, and possibly expulsion.
O'Neil doesn't want to punish anyone. She just wants them to act responsibly.
"So I would besiege students to be reflecting on their decision making," she said.
This problem is occurring in universities across the country, and it comes as no surprise to public health experts.
Christine Porter, a public health researcher and UW associate professor, predicted this outcome right before the semester began.
"The struggle is going to be that, on average, people in the age group of the average college student generally are making decisions based on a feeling of invincibility, possibly being under the influence and prioritizing, understandably, the social fun/engagement part of being in college," she said at the time.
Porter added it would only take a few students acting in this predictable way to shut down the institution.
"Even if 80% of the students do the right thing, or 90% do the right thing, it would only take a small group to lead to these spreading events and that seems very likely based on everything we know and have seen so far," she said.
O'Neil said she wants to work with students to continually improve the university's response.
"But if we don't have compliance with the expectations, if we don't have everybody bought in and understanding that their individual choices are steering the direction of what the semester is going to look like, I feel like we're going to be limited moving forward," she said.
University President Ed Seidel would like to reopen the campus, but he'll only do it if they can be sure the students will be safe. If not, the rest of the semester will be taught online.
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