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College Football Gives Iowa State University Normalcy During Pandemic


Now to this autumn of confusion on college campuses. Some students have been suspended or fined for attending parties. In some places, alarming numbers of coronavirus infections have forced universities to send their students home. NPR's Elissa Nadworny is on a road trip to see several campuses as a school year like no other begins. And today, she is in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State, despite all, has begun its Big 12 college football season.

Elissa, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Kickoff in a few hours, right?

NADWORNY: That's right, yep. It's the opening game of the season. So the ISU Cyclones are set to play the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns. The spirit team and the marching band will be there. We caught them practicing last night, all wearing masks.


NADWORNY: Of course, it won't be like other games. There's going to be no fans in the stadium. The parking lots that are normally full of tailgaters before a game, this morning, they're empty. Students told us they're planning on watching the game on TV at bars, restaurants and in the dorms.

SIMON: Elissa, there's been a surge of coronavirus cases in the state. What do we know about that and the numbers, for example, even on the football team that will be playing today?

NADWORNY: Right. So this does come at a time when coronavirus cases are among the highest in the nation here in Iowa. And they are testing the football team three times a week. At the end of August, they said they had a 2.4% positivity rate. So of course, they have to keep that number low in order to play. But here on campus, they have reported they have a 20% positivity rate. And of course, they're not doing mass testing. So that number could be much higher.

SIMON: That's the scene in Ames. You've been to a number of Midwestern schools by now. I wonder what's going on in some other campuses.

NADWORNY: Well, we've seen a real attempt to move the socializing outside. There were couches and TVs set up outside of student housing in Ann Arbor where the University of Michigan is. But there's also this resignation that this isn't what college is supposed to be like. Here's Caroline Touzeau. She's a senior at the University of Michigan.

CAROLINE TOUZEAU: This is the peak of our lives. Like, we're missing out on so much. So it's - I think it's OK for us to be upset about that.

NADWORNY: At the University of Illinois, we talked with a group of freshmen. We found them sitting six feet apart eating a potluck-style dinner on the quad. Liara Aber says she'd rather do that than feeling guilty about spreading the virus.

LIARA ABER: I mean, I - no, I think this is fun. This is what we have to do, you know? This is enough for right now, you know?

SIMON: You know, Elissa, we hear all the stories about partying, but it seems like a lot of students are indeed following the rules. How are they enforced on campus?

NADWORNY: Yeah, that's right. Well, on a lot of campuses, student workers have been tasked with policing their classmates when it comes to mask wearing and social distancing. Here at Iowa State, I talked to an RA - so that someone who works in the dorms. She told me that she feels like the mask police, and that's not what she signed up for. Other resident advisers I've talked to have left the job. They don't feel safe. They weren't given enough PPE. And at the University of Michigan this week, residence hall staff actually went on strike. Regular COVID-19 testing, hazard pay are among their demands.

SIMON: And, of course, we're still seeing the number of infections rise. What are the difficult options colleges have if those numbers continue to go up?

NADWORNY: Well, colleges are in a real bind because, you know, they could go online and send students home, like the University of North Carolina did, among others. But health experts have advised against that plan since it has the potential to spread the virus further in lots of different communities. Julia Marcus is an epidemiologist at Harvard, and she told me she can't believe that universities are even considering this option.

JULIA MARCUS: We're going to bring you here. We're going to let a bunch of you get infected. And then we don't want to deal with it, so we're going to wash your hands of it and tell you all to go home. I mean, it's just, like, the worst possible thing you can do.

NADWORNY: The other option is to go online and allow students to stay in dorms, though we've learned from research at the University of Illinois that in-person class is not where this is spreading. It's the mask-less gathering, the parties, the communal living. So it's unclear if just shifting classes online would make a big enough difference. I should say that the California state system has already announced that they'll be mostly online for the spring semester. So a lot of these questions around whether it's safe to reopen college, they're not going away anytime soon.

SIMON: NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who covers higher education, thanks so much.

NADWORNY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.