An outdoor classroom set up on Tulane's campus in November 2020. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

Over the next several weeks, universities across New Orleans are returning to classes during a national third wave of COVID-19 infections. More importantly, students will return to dorms, fraternities, and dining halls, where cases appeared to have spread rapidly during the fall semester.

At Tulane University, the city’s largest four-year university, several professors interviewed by The Lens expressed serious reservations about bringing students back to campus, though one cautioned that opinions vary among faculty members as a whole. In spite of a major testing effort designed to ensure that the school could continue in-person classes, more than 1,200 students ended up infected at Tulane.

Faculty at other schools contacted by The Lens didn’t voice the same concerns. 

“I’m just worried about the total number of cases,” said Carola Wenk, a professor of computer science and the president of Tulane’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

“We’re already going in with a significant number of cases, and significantly more employees coming in with positive tests,” she said in a second interview.

Although classrooms appear to be safe, Wenk said, it’s clear from Tulane’s data and university communications that outbreaks have been connected to university housing. Tulane has the largest on-campus undergraduate population in the city, and its dorms have experienced high rates of COVID.

The Louisiana Department of Health hasn’t publicized any cases of community spread that began at New Orleans universities, but over the summer, it identified a cluster of cases related to bars at LSU. Most schools in the New Orleans area, including Tulane, have their own independent contact tracing systems, and LDH’s contact tracers have rarely reached more than 50 percent of new cases within a day of diagnosis, making it hard to directly confirm community spread.

But a pair of analyses released in December and January suggested that campus outbreaks could be related to larger outbreaks in surrounding communities.

Last semester

Before the fall semester began in August, the Tulane AAUP chapter released a survey that found that 59 percent of the 1,800 faculty surveyed were not comfortable bringing all students back on campus, largely because of health concerns.

“I one hundred percent thought we would be online” by September 15, said Stephanie Porras, the chair of the Newcomb Art Department in a November interview. Schools across the country, including the University of North Carolina, went online within weeks of reopening as case numbers exploded.

But Wenk and others say that Tulane has done some things right.

“What Tulane has done really well is the testing, right?” Wenk said. “The testing and contact tracing and resulting isolation and quarantining of students. This is really very cool that we can do that much testing on campus.”

In the fall, Tulane rolled out an ambitious COVID-19 testing program, leveraging the school’s Molecular Pathology Lab to process thousands of tests a day. Similar surveillance testing efforts on college campuses nationally have mostly worked through regional partnerships, like a collaboration between the Broad Institute and a number of New England colleges.

Following a sharp rise in cases early in the semester, Tulane undergraduates who lived or attended classes on campus began to be tested weekly, while graduate students and employees were tested monthly.

Most other colleges in the area rolled out daily symptom screening apps, and offered rapid testing to symptomatic students or those identified as having close contacts, but didn’t conduct surveillance testing.

The other exception is Xavier University, which began testing a random subset of students and employees with the stated goal of “testing 10 percent of campus every week.”

Every school set aside housing to isolate students who were infected, and developed contact tracing procedures for identifying students who’d been exposed. Tulane ended up acquiring extra space in downtown hotels for isolating students as the semester progressed.

Tulane students also continued to quarantine and isolate in AirBnBs off campus.

Despite those protocols, in the week following Halloween and Hurricane Zeta, Tulane and Loyola both reported new surges.A Nov. 6 message from Tulane President Michael Fitts said that the spike “can be connected directly to poor decisions” during those events.

“We received reports, photos and videos of Halloween parties hosted by Tulane students and attended by students who were not adhering to COVID-19 health guidelines (wearing masks and social distancing) in the downtown and French Quarter areas,” wrote Tulane Vice President of Student Affairs Erica Woodley in a message to Tulane students on Nov. 5. 

Tulane faculty members also said they suspected that Hurricane Zeta and the following power outage contributed to the spike.

“I think a lot of people were blaming Halloween,” said Michelle Lacey, a professor of mathematics. “But I’d blame [Hurricane Zeta] more. With all the power outages in the community, everybody sort of converged on campus because that’s a place where you could go and be plugged in and get warm.”

Afterwards, Tulane rolled out a number of new precautions, including daily testing at two freshman dorms that had “steep increases” in case numbers, and three-times-a-week testing for all other undergraduates living and attending classes on campus. 

Tulane’s student body also has a much higher proportion of out-of-state students than any other university in New Orleans, raising additional questions about how students can travel safely during outbreaks.

‘I feel that Loyola’s approach generally has worked’

Professors at Loyola University and the University of New Orleans who spoke to The Lens said that they did not feel the same misgivings about the spring semester as professors at Tulane. (Wenk also cautioned that there was “a spread of opinions” among Tulane faculty, and that many felt that spikes had been handled appropriately.) Professors at Dillard University and Xavier University contacted by The Lens did not respond to requests for comment. 

“I feel that Loyola’s approach generally has worked,” John Lovett, a law professor and member of the faculty senate at Loyola, and wrote in an email. “Of course, we have a different study body and a different kind of community ethos. Those factors may well have made a difference in our relative success on this front. But the bottom line is that no one here is planning or advocating for any big changes in how we do things.”

Wendy Schuchtler, a microbiologist and chair of the biological sciences department at UNO said that she’d initially had concerns about the risks of returning to in-person classes in the fall, but that she ultimately felt that professors were given control over making safety decisions in the classroom. “If any faculty member wants to teach online they can. There was no forcing anybody who was uncomfortable at all being there and I am very appreciative of that.”

If anything, she said, the administration cautioned professors against teaching more in-person lectures and lab courses.

But that’s not to say that those schools are immune from outbreaks. As Tulane officials have stressed to both the Lens and national outlets like the New York Times, the university was one of a small subset of American universities to implement surveillance testing last fall.

Because of that, it’s almost impossible to compare COVID numbers at Tulane to those at nearby universities. Tulane is likely catching nearly every case among its on-campus undergraduate population, unlike schools that test only symptomatic students. Up to half of all COVID cases are believed to be asymptomatic, and college-aged adults are less likely to experience severe symptoms of the disease.

And although Loyola says that it doesn’t have evidence of widespread community transmission, the lack of surveillance testing means that the school also can’t rule it out entirely. Given the outbreak over Halloween, it’s also clear that community spread has occurred at least once.

Tulane spokesperson Mike Strecker highlighted the school’s percent-positivity numbers at the end of the fall semester in an email to The Lens. At the time, that metric was lower than that of the city as a whole.

But percent positivity is best used to estimate whether testing is adequate, not whether an outbreak is well-contained, epidemiologists say. And small differences in test positivity in very different testing regimes — like those of Tulane and the city of New Orleans — aren’t easily interpreted.

Though she said she is worried about the number of cases going into the spring semester, which began Tuesday, she acknowledged that some concerns from the summer had not borne out.

Going into the previous semester, she said, faculty was worried that they would be at high risk in in-person classes. But, she said “it seems like infection has not really happened in classrooms. … It seems to be happening at private events.”

She noted that she hasn’t seen the transmission data that suggests that pattern, but trusts the administration’s communications. And Tulane invested heavily in COVID-proofing its classrooms early in the semester, building outdoor spaces and installing microphones for hybrid learning.

What’s clear, however, is that although Tulane’s test positivity numbers remained low for much of the semester, cases among students mounted.

Roughly one in four on-campus undergrads

Undergraduates living on campus at Tulane appear to have been particularly hard-hit.

Tulane provides data to the state’s higher education outbreak dashboard, which reports 1,273 total cases among students living or attending classes on campus since mid-July, and 89 cases among employees. 

Universities that didn’t conduct surveillance testing predictably reported much lower numbers.

Loyola reports 139 total infections among students living or attending classes on campus, out of about 4,500 students. Xavier University reports 63 cases out of 3,300 students. The University of New Orleans reports 28 out of about 6,000 students.

Tulane’s own dashboard reports only “cumulative positive tests,” which include “instances when an individual has received more than one positive test result.” But those cumulative totals give clues on where cases have appeared.

About 70 percent of those positive tests were from undergraduates living on campus. 25 percent were from undergraduates living off campus. The remainder were from graduate and professional students.

Given that breakdown of positive tests, and a total of 1,273 cases, it’s likely that around 900 undergraduates living on campus had COVID over the past 7 months.

Tulane has about 8,600 undergraduates, and first and second year students were required to live on campus this year. Although the school does not publish data on how many students were in residence on campus this fall, there were about 1,800 students in the incoming freshman class this year.

That means there was a COVID case among about one in every four on-campus undergraduates. It’s an imperfect estimate, of course, since fewer students are in residence because of COVID. And some students may have slipped through the testing net altogether if they quarantined off-campus after an exposure.

“I’m worried about repeating this in the spring,” Wenk said. “I think these total numbers are too much. There’s going to be a few who have more serious complications.”

She brought up the health consequences for young people, who may not die of COVID, but still risk long-term fatigue, fevers, and other chronic symptoms known as “long-haul” COVID. (An Atlantic story in the fall estimated that 30-year-olds are more likely to suffer long-term symptoms than 60-year-olds are to die from the disease.)

Tulane’s dashboard doesn’t publish statistics about severe cases or hospitalizations, citing privacy concerns, and a Tulane spokesperson did not respond to a request for more information by publication. However, a July study of COVID cases in France found that even in 20-year-old women, one in 1,000 cases led to hospitalization, so it’s likely that there’s been at least one hospitalization on campus, and a handful of severe cases. 

“The question is, is that worth having classes in person, if the probability of catching it is one-fifth? I don’t know. I just think that’s too much.”

The consequences to the rest of the city, meanwhile, are hard to know. When asked about the that students could transmit the virus while returning to campus by plane, Strecker, the Tulane spokesperson, said that there was no evidence that this had occurred.

But a Jan. 13 study published in Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering found that nationally, campus outbreaks were statistically related to subsequent outbreaks in the surrounding area. The study did not examine any New Orleans area schools in particular.

“While early policy makers had hoped to create local bubbles of a COVID-19 free campus environment,” the study’s authors write, “we now know that the virus spreads rapidly among students and that local campus outbreaks are often linked to spiking case numbers in neighboring communities.”

The highest risk, the study found, was during the first two weeks of the semester.

In December, a New York Times analysis found that deaths spiked in counties with large college outbreaks. That analysis looked only at counties where college students made up more than 10 percent of the population.

Will spring be different?

So far, precautions at most schools are likely to look much like during the fall. Tulane brought students back on campus on Jan. 11 for COVID testing, and began classes on Tuesday. Loyola and Xavier will resume classes on Tuesday as well, while Dillard, Southern University at New Orleans, and UNO will start courses virtually. UNO plans to resume in-person classes after Mardi Gras.

The situation on the ground looks slightly different. New Orleans has returned to stricter restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses, meaning that students will have fewer places to gather off campus.

Tulane received 5,000 vaccines this week, which it will use to begin immunizing employees over 70, those who work with sick students, members of the School of Public Health, and frontline food services and custodial workers. It’s also partnering with Xavier to immunize students and faculty at Xavier’s schools of health. 

The larger issue, Tulane faculty said, is feeling like the administration isn’t taking their concerns seriously.

“We were getting a lot of pressure from the administration to encourage the students to come to class in person, but I didn’t feel like I could ethically enforce that,” Lacey said, a point that 

“We’ve received emails telling us that we should be enforcing in-person attendance in our classes,” she said. “Any student who’s not planning on attending in-person should sign up for this online-only option, which means that they wouldn’t have access to classes they’re currently enrolled in.”

Although infections don’t appear to be happening in classrooms, in-person requirements could put more students in dorms, where community spread has occurred. And professors interviewed say that the frustration has been compounded by communications from the administration that brushed over their concerns.

“They surveyed us,” Porras said, referring to a community survey sent out at the end of the fall semester. “But basically the response that we got is, ‘You all said it’s going great.’”

Teaching in a hybrid format, faculty said, has been extremely taxing for both students and teachers. Wenk said that she’s spending triple the time she normally would spend preparing for each class.

“There’s very few students who are doing as well as I know they could do,” said Porras. “I have more students [for whom] I have deep concerns about their mental health and stress levels generally.”

And not having students on campus could both reduce that stress, they say, while creating fewer opportunities for COVID transmission.

“I don’t want to blame the students for any of this, because they’ve been put in a bad situation,” said Susann Lusnia, a professor of classics. She and others pointed out that in some ways, the unusual stress of the semester means that it makes sense that students would be blowing off steam.

Tulane and Loyola both plan to give Mardi Gras off to students, although they will resume classes the following day. Tulane will not give a Lundi Gras holiday, while Loyola has yet to decide. At UNO, Schluchter said she didn’t have direct knowledge of the school’s decision to hold off on classes until after Mardi Gras, but said that it was her understanding that it was based on “predicting what’s likely to happen.

“We all knew that even if you tell people not to do it, people are going to do it.”

“We don’t think [the Halloween outbreak] is going to be repeated in February, with Mardi Gras?” Porras asked.