Before classes had even started this semester, pictures of student parties began to circulate on social media. A college experience had been promised, but not everyone read the fine print about the degree of isolation and social distancing that would be required. The reactions ranged from indifference, to abject horror, to finger wagging, to smug “I-told-you-so’s”.
Since then, additional cases of partying have been caught on camera. COVID-19 cases at IU Bloomington have increased since the beginning of the semester, particularly in communal living environments, such as fraternity and sorority houses. Although, IU’s reported cases are down slightly as of this Wednesday.
However, from a scientific perspective, we need to be careful when apportioning blame before the evidence comes in.
IU has a lot of students. So many students, in fact, that even if almost all students are behaving responsibly, there will all-but-inevitably be more than enough to get a party started. And anecdotally, from the time I have spent on campus, most students are behaving responsibly. Mask wearing is all but universal, even in contexts where technically it is not required, and social distancing is followed with vigor.
IU has 33,000 undergraduates and thousands more graduate students, staff, and faculty. A mere 5% of undergraduate students nets us 1,650 willing partiers! It is too easy to paint all IU students with the same brush, when the vast majority may be downright fastidious about public health.
This statement is not intended to exonerate those individuals who chose to party, which still represents a foolish and unnecessary risk. (Although we can be empathic — pandemics are miserable.) But, the real enemy of the IU administration regarding partying is not student irresponsibility, but simply large numbers.
Additionally, focusing on student parties can obscure a larger, more important point about being careful with evidence in the present context. Let’s say that there is an outbreak. (We can ignore the question of whether IU is to blame for putting students in this position in the first place. That’s a legal, not scientific, concern.) Can one fairly claim that the outbreak was caused by partying?
No, not until we actually have the evidence.
Many students wanted to return to campus, and universities wanted to provide in-person education and secure income. Higher education institutions across the country, not just Indiana University, tried a grand experiment: with enough safety precautions, could large universities, despite their problematic cruise-ship-like structure, still manage to operate safely in the fall? Indiana University invested tremendous resources in an attempt to mitigate a whole range of risks: student dining, crowded buildings, communal living, etc. There are an abundance of potential causes for an outbreak, not just partying.
If partying is a contributing factor, there can still be complexities. What if someone catches COVID-19 at a party, and then infects 10 other people at their dorm? Alternatively, what if someone catches COVID-19 at their dorm, and then infects 10 other people at a party? The problem in cases like these are both communal living and partying, not to mention the in-person classes those students may be attending. Thus, multiple risk factors can intersect.
Indiana University’s Restart Committee, the group of health experts, administrators, business consultants, and lawyers that advised the university about a possible reopening, was forthright about the challenges of what they were attempting. Universities needed to be able to effectively confront a range of risks and contingencies. And presumably, no one would formulate a reopening plan on the expectation that out of 33,000 students, none of them would choose to party.
Reopening campus was, simply put, not going to be easy. Some experts worried about the difficulty of reopening safely and doubted universities would be able to pull it off.
I hope Indiana University succeeds. But, if the more pessimistic experts are right and it proves to be the case that IU failed to open safely, then what is needed is not simply to reflexively blame whatever student party is circulating on Twitter, but to evaluate more seriously what mistakes were actually made, how to avoid them, and how to proceed.
That is the evidence-based way forward.
Edited by Jennifer Sieben and Evan Leake