COVID-19 enveloped the world of higher education in uncertainty last spring and has reshaped the field since it forced education into the online environment. Despite precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19, universities across the country are experiencing inflated numbers – West Chester University is the latest among them.
On October 2, Mayor Dianne Herrin of West Chester declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19 cases doubling from the beginning of August to the end of September. New restrictions went into effect limiting social gatherings at private residences to ten people and requiring masks in public spaces. Violating the limit on social gatherings comes with a $300 fine for each person exceeding the limit. This fine is applied to each attendee, not just the host.
According to the Chester County Health Department, the number of COVID-19 cases increased from 202 to 437 from August to September. Of the 437 active cases, 299 of them are in people aged 18 to 22 – this is triple the number of cases in that age group present in August. The 299 also make up 68% of all COVID-19 cases in the borough of West Chester. In Chester County, it makes up 6% of total cases out of 7,155 according to data collected by The New York Times.
Mayor Herrin stated that public officials were worried about behavior exhibited in the residential areas around the university saying, “We are seeing a lot of activity, outdoor gatherings that are quite large, with close contact over long periods of time and no mask-wearing.”
Data collected by The New York Times shows 4,397 cases at 81 schools across Pennsylvania since the spring semester. The majority of cases were active in the current fall semester.
While things were still up in the air for many universities last spring, West Chester was the first in the region to cancel all in-person classes after spring break. Many students at Millersville saw this as a canary in a coal mine and expected that they too would not be returning for in-person instruction. This, of course, proved true.
West Chester is the largest PASSHE school with approximately 17,700 enrolled students. This is nearly 10,000 more than Millersville which has 7,817 enrolled students. The difference in size affords Millersville an advantage in keeping positive cases of COVID-19 down in comparison to bigger schools, but it is not a guarantee.
The cases that prompted West Chester to initiate a state of emergency, while mostly college students, are not tied directly to the university. Since the gatherings believed responsible for the uptick in cases occurred in off-campus housing, the university had limited ability to prevent them, especially since instruction is primarily online. This is why Mayor Herrin felt the borough had to step in saying, “It has to be a partnership between the university and the borough, and that’s what we’re really working to achieve.”
According to the Millersville University COVID-19 Dashboard, there are currently 7 active cases among students, 2 are on campus, and 5 are off-campus. 62 cumulative cases have been reported since August 8. By comparison, West Chester has recorded 103 students who have tested positive for COVID-19 according to University Spokesperson, Nancy Gainer. These cases are collected through self-reporting by students.
Understandably, college students are feeling like they are missing out on an important life experience by having to avoid many of the social aspects of the “college experience.” It is unfortunate, but to keep our communities safe, we need to practice safety guidelines. The declaration by Mayor Herrin is set to expire in seven days, but could be extended. “This is a temporary and very minor sacrifice for us all to make to protect our friends and neighbors and prevent them from getting sick,” she said.