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COVID-19 cases are on the rise at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

David Mercer

COVID-19 Spike At The University Of Illinois Prompts Student Crackdown

Less than two weeks into the fall semester, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is ramping up discipline against students to combat a growing number of COVID-19 cases on campus.

The school already has racked up more COVID-19 cases on campus than it had predicted for the entire semester.

The university blames the spike on students attending large parties this past weekend and students who did not follow Champaign-Urbana Public Health District guidance to quarantine after receiving a positive test.

Two students have been suspended and more than 100 students are facing disciplinary action. Eleven Greek organizations are also under investigation for taking part in large gatherings. A 12th is under investigation for violating quarantine. At least one fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi, has also been suspended.

Officials said while the vast majority of students are following the rules, they will be forced to shift entirely online if they can’t reverse the trend.

“If we do not make the progress that we expect will be made over the next two weeks, we are going to be forced to send everyone home,” said Provost Andreas Cangellaris on a media call Wednesday.

If the upward trend continues, models predict there would be 8,000 cases on campus this semester, instead of the original forecast of 700. Already, the university has identified 784 new COVID-19 cases since classes started on Aug 24. While officials said they had anticipated a slight uptick in cases as students returned, the number of cases has not receded as expected.

To combat this increase, the university is adding staff to monitor large social gatherings off campus and says they will remove students from campus who are not following safety protocols. Students who host parties will be immediately suspended. The university also created a confidential web form for students and staff to report unsafe behavior.

All students are expected to limit in-person activities through Sept. 16 except for essential trips such as attending class, seeking medical attention or grocery shopping.

University researchers said predictive models took into consideration that students would socialize or not wear masks throughout the semester. But they did not anticipate students would fail to isolate after a positive test or not respond to contact tracing efforts.

“Willful behavior in violation of public health directives was not included,” said Nigel Goldenfeld, a physics professor who created and analyzed multiple COVID-19 models for the university and state of Illinois. “We assumed that people would do the legally correct thing.”

Awais Vaid with the Champaign Urbana Public Health District said about 10 students who tested positive did not respond to contact tracing phone calls within a 24hour period. University officials said they also had documentation that students were leaving their quarantine and swiping into other buildings using their university ID. In some cases, students were getting tested multiple times to try and get a negative result. Officials said none of the positive cases have been linked to attending class.

“I think that some students have a misconception that we are going to go home so you might as well make the best of the time you have here now,” said Ali Mirza, a senior and the student representative on the U of I Board of Trustees. “They’re contributing to the notion we all will be going home and they’re contributing to it by displaying misbehavior.”

University officials reiterated that a majority of students are following the rules and multiple students expressed frustration with fraternities for hosting large gatherings. Student Affairs Vice Chancellor Danita Brown Young says most of the 90 fraternities and sororities have been good partners. But they often have to take the organizations at their word:

“If we don’t hear or see any violations visibly there’s not a lot that we can do,” she said.

Officials say there are no plans to shut down Greek Life for the fall semester.

The university also announced a new group, called Shield Team 30, that will more quickly contact students who test positive and work with them to isolate and better communicate what quarantining entails.

When asked whether UIUC took any responsibility for the uptick since they decided to reopen campus amid a pandemic, officials defended the decision because they said it is what students wanted, they developed strong safety protocols and have heard from students who are unhappy some students aren’t following the rules.

They feel this new Shield Team 30 will be able to mitigate further increases and protect the broader community. They also insist UIUC’s robust, twice-weekly saliva test and real-time data analytics allowed them to quickly identify the problem and hope these enforcements will correct the upward trend. UIUC garnered national attention when they developed their own COVID-19 saliva test, which all students and staff are required to take twice a week.

“We have a great opportunity to right this ship … because we have such a high level of analysis going on,” said Marty Burke, a U of I chemistry professor who helped develop the saliva test. “We saw this early … I feel hopeful we’ll be able to fix this and get back on track.”

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

This story has been changed to reflect the correct number of COVID-19 cases at the University of Illinois. The university distributed a smaller number earlier on Wednesday.

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