NATIONWIDE — Pockets of COVID-19 cases quickly emerged as students went back to school in mid-August: In total, the New York Times reported higher learning institutions identified 88,000 COVID positive cases as of Sept. 10, with the number expected to rise.
But a common thread among many coronavirus outbreaks on college campuses has materialized: Greek life.
While it can be difficult to trace coronavirus outbreaks to certain houses, some schools – like Michigan State University and the University of New Hampshire – have managed to link COVID clusters to Greek houses on campus.
There are no clear national guidelines on how schools should reopen amid the pandemic, much less on how to deal with on-campus Greek life. As such, institutions have implemented varying approaches in order to slow the spread of the disease within their Greek communities.
Fraternities and sororities can play a large role in college social life, especially at the outset of fall and spring semesters during the recruitment process, also known as “rush” or “rushing,” where students familiarize themselves with different Greek houses on campus.
Typically, recruitment events are held in person.
Some schools, like East Tennessee State University, have implemented strict rules for this year’s rush. At ETSU, campus fraternities conducted their rush entirely online.
“We typically did recruitment out of classrooms and our classroom occupancy was down to one quarter,” ETSU’s Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, Maggie Darden, told local station WJHL. “We just really didn’t have the space on campus in order to logistically make that work.”
ETSU is operating under a “Modified Stage 2” plan for the fall semester, which allows for gatherings of up to 15 people.
Other schools, like the University of Florida, originally planned to conduct their rush with a combination of in-person and virtual events, but after monitoring state-wide cases of the coronavirus, opted to instead recruit new members via entirely virtual meetings.
A similar situation arose at the University of South Carolina in early September, when the school’s Interfraternity Council (IFC) was forced to move the school’s recruitment process from in-person to entirely virtual after a rising number of COVID cases were linked to Greek houses.
“This was not an easy decision to make but the health and safety of our members is the main priority and we believe this is a necessary step to ensure we limit exposure of the coronavirus throughout campus and the Columbia community,” a letter from the university’s IFC council members read in part. “We ask that all 21 of the chapters within the Interfraternity Council continue to practice safety measures such as wearing masks and socially distancing to ensure we slow and stop the spread of the virus.”
The spread of the COVID-19 was hardly limited to recruiting events, as many older members had moved into their fraternity or sorority houses prior to the start of school.
For some students, the draw of Greek life on campus includes the promise of living with fellow members in a shared fraternity or sorority house, but this set-up is a ripe hotbed for the spread of the coronavirus.
In early September, Indiana University urged students living in Greek housing to “re-evaluate” their living situation.
“Due to the nature of communal living (Greek housing), in which there is a high density of residents, shared bathrooms, and a number of common living, sleeping and dining spaces, viruses like COVID-19 easily spread,” a statement on the university’s website read in part. “Greek houses at IU Bloomington are seeing this type of spread at quickly increasing rates.”
“Mitigation testing positivity rates in some houses are now above 50 percent. As such, IU's team of public health experts is extremely concerned that Greek houses are seeing uncontrolled spread of COVID-19,” the statement continued.
Last week, the University of Pennsylvania announced new Greek life-specific COVID-19 guidelines created alongside Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, which will be implemented in response to a spike in COVID cases at Greek life houses across the city’s schools. Director of Digital Public Health Jim Garrow declined to specify which school or organization sparked the decision, but noted that at one Philadelphia Greek house, over a third of the residents tested positive for coronavirus.
"This memo is meant to be a targeted communication to students in Greek Life, but it applies to other students as well," Garrow told the Daily Pennsylvanian. "We are recommending that students living in large households remain in their homes."
Officials in Michigan took even stricter action against Greek houses to prevent a further outbreak in the state. On Monday, Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail issued an emergency declaration that ordered residents of over 30 houses on Michigan State University’s campus into a mandatory quarantine – 23 of which were fraternity or sorority houses.
“I do not take this lightly, but there is an outbreak centered on Michigan State University, and it is quickly becoming a crisis," Vail said in a statement. "The surge in cases we have seen over the past few weeks is alarming. I am disheartened to add that this outbreak is being fueled in part by a lack of cooperation and compliance from some MSU students.”
Vail also noted that had the school’s Greek community previously implemented a moratorium on parties, the quarantine orders could have possibly been prevented. MSU’s IFC struck down a proposed ban on parties last month after 11 fraternities and sororities voiced their opposition.
The more troubling trend emerging is the fraternity and sorority organizations that continue to host parties with blatant disregard for their institutions’ social distancing policies.
In late August, Penn State placed the fraternity Phi Kappa Psi on probation for hosting an unsanctioned party just a few days after the school issued guidance that banned social events of any kind for Greek life organizations.
Last week, University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman harshly criticized several members of the Greek life community who reportedly hosted parties despite campus social distancing guidelines, even giving partygoers tips on how to avoid police and school officials when getting a coronavirus test.
“We are having a significant issue with a small number of students, and we have disturbing information stemming, frankly, from the fraternities in particular,” Plowman said in an address to students and staff on Sept. 8. “Our case counts are going up way too fast, and we will need more drastic measures to stop the upward trajectory. We’re evaluating a range of options and, let me be clear, everything is on the table.”
The school previously stated that clusters of the disease were found at five Greek houses since the beginning of August. The university defined a cluster as “at least five positive cases and/or at least 20 close contacts as a result of one event or in one concentrated location.”
A week prior, University of New Hampshire President James W. Dean Jr. condemned students’ “reckless behavior” after 11 positive cases of coronavirus were traced to a party at the fraternity Theta Chi.
“Let me be clear: this is reckless behavior and the kind of behavior that undermines our planning and will lead to us switching to a fully remote mode,” Dean said in a statement. “We have repeatedly asked all members of our community to practice and adhere to public health guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID.”
The fraternity is suspended pending an investigation and all Greek life houses are temporarily banned from hosting in-person gatherings, Dean added.