Updated at 4 p.m. Nov. 16 with policy changes from the University of Missouri-St. Louis
Thanksgiving break will mark the end of in-person classes for tens of thousands of college students in the St. Louis region.
Many universities plan to finish the fall semester completely virtually in an effort to prevent students from spreading the coronavirus on campus after traveling over the holiday break. School officials said they hope to avoid clusters of infections similar to ones that popped up on campuses after Labor Day and Halloween.
The announcements come as several campuses are reporting upticks in cases on campus this week and hospitals in the St. Louis region near capacity.
“We’re encouraging students [that] when they shift their bubble, to shift it one way and not both ways,” said Michael Shultz, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville COVID coordinator.
Fontbonne University, Harris-Stowe State University, Lindenwood University, SIUE and St. Louis University plan to move all classes and finals online after Thanksgiving break.
Students at those schools are encouraged to move out before Thanksgiving and not return until next semester. Administrators are recommending that students get tested for the coronavirus before going home.
Washington University is requiring undergraduate students who are traveling more than 60 miles for Thanksgiving break to move out.
University of Missouri officials also announced Thursday that all of its students in Columbia would finish the semester virtually. On Sunday, administrators at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla announced the university would resume classes on campus after break. The school reported 52 new cases among its students in the past week. That’s four times as high as it’s been over the past several weeks.
Area schools with large commuter student populations, including University of Missouri-St. Louis and Webster University, in recent days reversed their original plans to finish the semester with on-campus classes. In response to new restrictions on businesses and gatherings in St. Louis County announced Friday, both universities will shift a majority of in-person classes to a virtual format after Nov. 30. Only labs and classes that require specialized equipment will remain on campus.
At UMSL, 60% of classes this semester were already fully online, a spokesperson said.
Administrators at local universities say students and faculty generally have followed public health protocols faithfully and adapted well during this unprecedented school year.
“What’s been really remarkable to me, with our faculty and staff and students, is how resilient people have had to become,” said Webster University Dean of Students John Buck.
So far, St. Louis-area colleges have avoided major coronavirus outbreaks, minimizing clusters within sports teams, student organizations and residential halls.
SLU officials say a recent uptick in cases at the school — 40 new cases over three days last week — have been a symptom of the virus spreading rapidly throughout the St. Louis metro area, which has seen more than 100,000 cases since March and on Friday passed the milestone of 2,000 deaths from COVID-19.
As of Friday, SLU has reported 385 cases among its students and staff this year, the most of any St. Louis-area university. The school has a population of about 12,800 undergraduate and graduate students.
SLU is one of the few universities in the region that has resources to administer mass testing. Every week the university tests 10% of its students living on campus who aren’t showing symptoms. The school’s mask mandates and internal contact tracing program have helped keep infection rates lower on campus than the rest of the region, said Terri Rebmann, a public health professor at SLU.
“Right now students are actually safer on campus and there’s less risk of exposure to COVID-19 than in the greater St. Louis community or in the state of Missouri as a whole,” said Rebmann, who helped design the university’s coronavirus response plan.
Contact tracers have found that few coronavirus exposures have occurred within classrooms, said officials from SLU, UMSL, Lindenwood and Webster.
“It shows we’re doing something right,” said Julee Mitsler, spokesperson for Lindenwood University.
As students return home, university administrators say they plan to stay vigilant and flexible for what next semester brings.
“Our work will continue until there’s a vaccine,” said D’Andre Braddix, UMSL associate vice provost for student affairs.
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