Schools Reopening During Coronavirus Pandemic: Dorms and Super Spreaders

Schools Briefing: Coronavirus Dorms and Super Spreaders


This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

Cases of coronavirus are spiking on university campuses, leaving administrators with two unappealing options: Quarantine students in dorms, or send them home.

The University of Alabama said it had recently posted university police officers at its quarantine dorms while Notre Dame said it had hired guards to monitor students in quarantine in hotels and off-campus apartments. And perhaps unsurprisingly, many schools are having trouble running what are essentially disease containment units.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brianna Hayes was assigned to a quarantine dorm after developing a fever. Two days later, the university informed her that she had tested positive and would need to move again, to a Covid-19 isolation dorm.

There was no university staff in the dorm to help sick students, Ms. Hayes said, and no elevator. Feverish and exhausted from the virus, she made four trips up and down staircases to move her bedding and other belongings to her isolation room. During her week in isolation, she said, no one from the university came to check on her.

“I felt like everyone was only interested in how I was affecting others, like who I came in contact with, and then I was just left to be sick,” she told our colleague Natasha Singer.

As our sister newsletter The Morning noted, the alternative to quarantine dorms may be even worse: Sending potentially sick students back home, where they may spread the virus. “It’s the worst thing you could do,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s leading infectious disease expert, said on the “Today” show.

Susan Dynarski, a University of Michigan economist, wrote on Twitter that “unloading students onto home communities” was “deeply unethical.”

As outbreaks bloom from illegal student parties and the virus spreads through the dorms, colleges are the new meatpacking plants.

Rate my dashboard: Two professors at the Yale School of Medicine have started a Twitter account to evaluate coronavirus dashboards at universities. Think Room Rater, but for public health.


This school year already looked different — instead of buses and homeroom, it’s Zoom rooms and social distanced desks. Now, even virtual spaces are feeling precarious.

Administrators in Hartford, Conn., had prepared for a hybrid reopening on Tuesday. But a ransomware attack — in which hackers locked people out of their networks and demanded big payments to get back in — forced the district to postpone classes for nearly 18,000 students. Schools reopened Wednesday.

That’s not an isolated incident. Technology problems hindered 200,000 students in Houston and thousands more in Virginia Beach. Kids can’t log on to supposedly secure portals. Video chats kick them out. Computers stall. Error messages multiply. Systems overload.

There were glitches and attacks well before Labor Day. There was a server issue in Philadelphia. A statewide outage in North Carolina. A teenage hacker choked the nation’s fourth-largest school district, Miami-Dade County, for days.

Even without hacks, students struggle to concentrate. Those with learning challenges have an even harder time. Younger children and children with special needs miss crucial social and emotional development socializing on Zoom. Kids starting new schools don’t know how to make friends. And lower-income children may not have reliable internet or device access in the first place.

“I am at the point where I will have to let them fail Spanish, P.E. and music, because I can’t manage their two schedules full-time on top of my full-time job,” said Ally Fonte, a parent whose two sons attend school in Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Read More: The 74 profiled the man running tech support for the San Antonio school district. His dedication to the “babies,” his 48,000 students, has kept the district afloat.


As many parents have discovered, getting a kid tested for Covid-19 is no easy task. Even in large cities with many test sites, parents are spending hours on the phone and driving long distances to get their kids swabbed.

Sarah Kliff, an investigative reporter at The Times, started looking into the issue after an outbreak at her son’s day care center. “I just assumed, because I live in a large city with a lot of testing sites, that it would be easy,” she said.

Working with our colleague Margot Sanger-Katz, and with help from the readers of this newsletter, Sarah found shortfalls across the country.

In Florida, the division of emergency management announced last month that it would “prioritize” pediatric testing as students there began to return to in-person school. Still, only a quarter of the 60 testing sites the agency supports will see children of all ages. The state’s 18 drive-through sites are limited to patients 5 and older.

Some cities, like Los Angeles, offer public testing to anyone. But others, like San Francisco and Dallas, have age cutoffs. In part, that’s because of differences in health insurance and concerns about medical privacy. The challenge of administering an invasive test to squirming children also plays a role.

“Kids weren’t really out in the wider world when this whole testing infrastructure was set up,” Sarah said. “But now they are. Day cares are reopening. Some students are going to school in person. We don’t really have a testing infrastructure meant to handle that.”

Limited pediatric testing might stall a return to normalcy. Without reliable testing, schools and day care centers cannot quickly isolate and trace the virus following an outbreak.

Margot and Sarah also wanted to thank everyone who wrote in to our call-out last week. Their story would not have been possible without your thoughtful, candid reflections.


  • In Iowa, leaders of the Des Moines Public Schools district are trying to figure out what to do now that a judge has denied their request to hold all classes remotely.

  • Bars in Ada County, Idaho, are allowed to reopen only after officials determined that school districts are at a lower risk than before.

  • At least 10 New York City public school buildings need repairs to their ventilation systems, and may have to delay the start of school past Sept. 21.

  • A shortage of substitute teachers in New Jersey could delay the start of schools for some districts.

  • Across the country, parents and educators have raised privacy concerns about coronavirus dashboards. In Florida, where the State Department of Health has pushed for confidentiality, some districts are releasing information anyway in the name of transparency.

  • Outside Detroit, one school has moved entirely outside, relying on nature to shape coursework and keep students safe. Other Michigan schools are doing the same.

  • In Colorado, a 12-year-old Black boy was suspended for having a toy gun in a virtual class, and the principal called the police.

  • In Iran, schools have reopened amid concerns from parents. “His health is a priority over education,” one parent told Al Jazeera. “They’re kids. They touch everything. And then they touch their faces.”






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