Before arriving on the campus of the University of Notre Dame earlier this month , almost all undergraduate and graduate students took COVID-19 tests. More than 11,800 tests yielded 33 positive cases, for a positivity rate of 0.28%.
By Aug. 18, eight days after classes began, the campus had 147 confirmed cases and a positivity rate of nearly 16%. The cases had passed the school's testing and isolation measures and put the remainder of the fall semester in jeopardy, school officials said. On that day, the university announced that university students would go virtual for at least two weeks.
The university is one of hundreds of schools trying to reopen with students on campus amid the pandemic. It is also among the headlines for its increase in COVID-19 cases since welcoming students.
Notre Dame has committed to reopening its campus since the spring. In late May, its president, Father John I. Jenkins, wrote a New York Times op-ed with the headline in bold: "Notre Dame is reopening. Worth the risk." While some schools, notably the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, have turned to e-learning amid coronavirus outbreaks this fall, Notre Dame continues to prioritize learning on campus.
The increasing cases, now numbering almost 500, prompted the school to "come up with a new battle plan," Principal Marie Lynn Miranda said in a video aimed at students last Friday.
Part of that plan is to keep college students, an overwhelming majority of whom tested positive for the virus, out of classrooms until at least September 2. The school should have an update on return to in-person learning by Friday, a spokesperson told ABC News.
The university has also expanded its testing for COVID-19. On Friday, it launched randomized tests of its student body to help identify asymptomatic or presymptomatic cases. During the five days since then, Notre Dame conducted 2,175 tests in total, about half the total number of tests that have been done since August 3. The campus positivity rate has dropped to around 3%.
"I think testing has been a big problem," Palermo said. ABC News.
Initially, the university had warned that only those students with established criteria for symptoms would seek the test. Now anyone who believes they have had direct contact with someone infected with COVID-19 can get tested, something Palermo also believes should have been the case from the beginning.
"I think the only way to be safe in person is to require regular testing of all students," he said. "I know it's expensive, but it's worth it."
Testing is a point of conflict for other members of the community. A petition launched last week requires that COVID-19 testing be available to the entire student population. The student newspaper, The Observer, has also asked for more data on the university's COVID-19 panel, including hospitalizations, recoveries, available quarantine and isolation spaces, and demographics of students who test positive. This week, the university updated the panel to include some new data, including a seven-day moving average of positive cases and a breakdown of cases by students, graduates, and employees.
Observers say the messages have also been mixed. , as the university brought about 12,000 students to campus amid new coronavirus protocols.
"Notre Dame's biggest problem is the lack of discipline in messaging," Chris Marsicano, founding director of the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College – – which is tracking the responses of higher education institutions to COVID-19 – said to ABC News. He pointed to reports that the university president apologized earlier this month after failing to adhere to the school's recommended social distancing guidelines while taking selfies with students.
"Message discipline is important for places that are big," Marsicano said. "It is difficult to control every student."
The language on disciplinary action had also been "very vague," Palermo said. Still, he noted that it has become stricter since the surge in cases. Last week, the university limited the meetings to 10 people, instead of 20, and officials warned that students who do not comply with health protocols could face "severe disciplinary measures", including dismissal.
University spokesman Paul Browne told ABC News that compliance with COVID-19 measures has been strong on campus. there haven't been any classroom-related cases, he said, but "not so much off campus." The initial outbreaks were related to a couple of off-campus parties where students did not wear masks and spread the virus from there. officials said. Recent tests have not found any other superspreader events, Browne said.
The university is currently considering disciplinary measures for several students who failed to adhere to health protocols, such as wearing masks or social distancing, or did not isolate or quarantine when required, Browne said.
"In some cases, we have had students leave those rooms to look for food, or they just leave," he added.
Browne said the students themselves have been effective in spreading the message of following health protocols through social media and the student newspaper. "I think their involvement has probably been as, if not more, effective than the administration's messages," he said.
A student recently opened an Instagram account on "why we do our part to prevent the spread." Another, who said he went to the hospital after contracting the virus, pleaded with students to follow the protocols in a letter to the editor published in the Observer this week.
"The past is the past, and there is nothing we can do to change that," he said. "What we can do is start taking this virus seriously even when the people in power and those closest to us refuse to do so."