Students walking past social distancing sign
Students walk past a sign promoting social distancing outside the Nebraska Union on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Lincoln, Neb.

by Jared Long, Libby Seline, Sydney Brun-Ozuna and Dylan Widger

Inside a red brick dorm on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus in late September, students sang “Don’t Stop Believing” at the top of their lungs. 

Around 10 new cases of the coronavirus were announced each day at UNL, but quarantined students wandered in and out of the building — sometimes not wearing masks — and while some of the 20-something students stayed in their rooms, coughed and attempted to recover, others chatted and laughed until 2 a.m.

All of them had tested positive for COVID-19, according to The Daily Nebraskan.  

“The weekend just turned into a madhouse because there was no RA or anything,” the UNL student, who wished to remain anonymous, said. 

Across the Big Ten, students are quarantining on campuses. At UNL, the students stayed at the Neihardt Residence Hall, which is no longer in use, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign students quarantined on the top two floors of a dormitory. The University of Michigan sent students to an apartment where they lived by themselves without, at least originally, basic supplies like soap and bedsheets, according to Sujin Kim, a 20-year-old student at Michigan.

“A number of these issues were cleared up as the semester went on and word got out,” Kim said in an email. “But it’s still unclear whether … students were supposed to be told that they had to bring all their own supplies (which seems unreasonable), or if students were supposed to be provided supplies and it was a logistics oversight.”

Universities across the country have struggled with how to best care for sick students, and some, at least initially, didn’t even provide meals to their quarantined students, according to The New York Times. As coronavirus cases increase across the country, universities have had to adjust to the pandemic by changing their testing and reporting protocols. 

The UNL administration had to decide early on many of the protocols they would carry out for the remainder of the semester, such as the volume and type of testing, how to report cases and how to hold students accountable for risky behaviors. Not every decision has been well received, and the administration had to be flexible to keep campus up and running smoothly.

“This is a constantly evolving situation. We always look to adapt and to improve in any way we can,” Deb Fiddelke, chief communications officer at UNL, said.


UNL has conducted more than 15,000 tests since August. In September, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green announced that UNL would ask random members of the campus community to be tested for COVID-19. 

Indiana University, The Ohio State University, Penn State, Purdue University and Rutgers University also conduct random testing. However, only UNL and Ohio State have made random testing optional, and randomly selected students at the others are required to participate. 

Voluntary testing has been a common theme in UNL’s response to the pandemic. The UNL administration decided before the semester began to not conduct regular mandatory COVID-19 tests for all students, faculty and staff living or working on campus, also known as surveillance testing.

In his September announcement, Green said the university decided against surveillance testing because these tests require saliva samples, which are less reliable than using a nasal swab, according to the Mayo Clinic. Green said surveillance testing would not allow for contact tracing and would likely cost the university tens of millions of dollars, as it would it necessary to conduct more tests regularly.

UNL also decided against testing all students before or upon arrival, as Green said an initial negative test could give people a false sense of security, potentially leading to more cases later on.

We decided not to require all students to get a diagnostic test prior to arrival on campus. While that approach may have given us a point-in-time count of positive cases, the status of anyone testing negative could easily change quickly,” Green wrote. “We’ve seen many universities who took this approach having large spikes in cases after the first two weeks because of a false confidence from an initial negative test.”

Five universities mandated that students get tested for COVID-19 before beginning the semester: University of Maryland, Northwestern University, Rutgers, Indiana and Penn State.

Some schools have required tests only for limited populations of students. Indiana, for example, conducted mandatory arrival testing, but only for students living on campus. The University of Iowa relies mostly on voluntary testing for symptomatic individuals and those who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive, but Iowa also provides regular surveillance testing for “students in essential roles that require some level of (socially distanced) face-to-face interaction,” such as resident assistants.

Other universities have conducted more extensive testing, enough for every student enrolled to have been tested multiple times. Northwestern has a policy of testing all students approved to be on campus weekly. Illinois requires every undergraduate student to take a saliva test twice a week and has conducted 845,285 tests as of Nov. 18, more than six times as many tests as any other Big Ten school. Based on the results of these regular tests, students may be barred from entering campus buildings. Students must show a special app to gain access.

Ohio State also uses an app to mitigate spread of the virus, requiring all students, faculty and staff to record their temperatures every day. Based on their response, the university receives a daily health passport that permits or denies access to campus.


Several universities, such as Illinois and Indiana, had their highest number of cases at the start of the school year, which is when some campuses mandated tests for returning students. The number of cases then dipped until mid-October when cases started to increase again.

Some schools stray from this pattern. Michigan’s cases peaked at the beginning of October, and Purdue’s cases peaked in November. 

Data fluctuates depending on how universities report cases and how often they test their students, according to Wade Fagen-Ulmschneider, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

Fagen-Ulmschneider has tracked coronavirus cases at Big Ten universities, but the numbers are often difficult to analyze because universities have conducted different tests and have different methods of reporting.

Most universities in the Big Ten use a combination of on-campus and off-campus COVID testing, though the ratio of on-campus to off-campus tests can vary widely.

For example, Rutgers only conducts on-campus testing for individuals who do not have symptoms. All Rutgers students, faculty and staff with symptoms must receive testing through off-campus testing sites.

While tests conducted on-campus are automatically reported to the university, those conducted off-campus are only included if individuals who test positive report it to the university or disclose their affiliation with the university to the local health department.

In other words, the more tests conducted off-campus, the fewer cases likely to be included in the totals. Most schools simply provide self-reporting forms or hotlines on their websites. 

Additionally, Fagen-Ulmschneider said it’s difficult to know exactly how many students are on campus or attending in-person classes, so it’s a challenge to compare the number of cases at each school to the number of people on campus.

Enrollment numbers may not be indicative of the number of students living on-campus or attending in-person classes. Some universities may have lower testing numbers due to only a fraction of students enrolled actually being on-campus.

Students vs. admin

Across the Big Ten, tensions rooted in institutions’ COVID-19 responses exist between students and administrators.

Matthew Mitnick, chair of the Associated Students of Madison — the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s student government — said his university’s response to the pandemic has been “abysmal.”

“They use advisory committees as a guise to silence students, rather than demonstrate how they are taking their opinions into account,” he said. “The administration has taken concerns brought up by students with a grain of salt. Many people do not feel supported.”

Wisconsin spokesperson Meredith McGlone did not provide a comment, citing “hectic” preparations for Thanksgiving break.

Jacob Klipstein, an at-large representative for the University Park Undergraduate Association at Penn State, said his university’s response was set up for failure.

“They basically had a ‘let’s see what happens and hope no one dies’ response and so far, they’ve been lucky, but reopening has gotten more students sick,” Klipstein said.

Kim echoed similar sentiments about Michigan.

“I would describe the plan generally as too little too late. There was no major action or decisive decision by the administration, the entire thing felt a bit indecisive,” she said. “It certainly felt as though the university was prioritizing revenue and reputation ahead of our health and safety.”

Rick Fitzgerald, the assistant vice president for public affairs at Michigan, said the university has had to change its response as the pandemic evolves.

“The University of Michigan has been adjusting to the ever-changing pandemic throughout the fall semester,” he said. “We had increased testing capacity and made adjustments to course delivery and operations as we learned more about the pandemic and received feedback from students and faculty.”

University administrators across the Big Ten have been challenged in their responses by what some officials have called reckless and irresponsible off-campus behavior by students.

The social scene and the restrictions upon it

Roni Miller, the student body president at UNL, said she believes UNL administrators are adapting and improving their ability to combat the spread of the virus. UNL administration announced that it could suspend or expel students who violate the student code of conduct. Although no students have been expelled or suspended from UNL because they failed to practice social distancing, the administration has cracked down on certain social gatherings. 

Earlier in the semester, UNL temporarily suspended several Greek chapters for hosting unauthorized large gatherings, although members of the Greek community decried what they saw as a lack of specific guidance from campus leaders.

On Nov. 16, Omaha’s KETV reported about a viral video showing large gatherings of maskless Huskers on Nov. 14 — Nebraska football’s first home game of the season.

Similar scenes have occurred at other Big Ten universities, too.

At Penn State, images of massive gatherings of partying students appeared on social media and concerned administrators. And at Rutgers, campus police have broken up parties with dozens of students in attendance.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, local bars near Illinois’s campus have asked students to show their “boarding pass,” or the app that allows negative students to access buildings on campus, according to The News-Gazette.

State or county level lockdowns or curfews have likely impacted the students’ ability to socialize — and thus the spread of COVID-19. From Sept. 2 to Sept. 16, the University of Illinois only allowed students to attend class, go to work, shop for groceries, get tested for COVID-19 and attend religious services or medical appointments. Students were also allowed to exercise alone.

Cases dipped during this time period, beginning with a seven-day average of 126 new cases each day and ending with a seven-day average of 26.3 cases each day.

Washtenaw County in Michigan, where the University of Michigan is located, issued a stay-in-place order from Oct. 20 to Nov. 3. The University reports cases on a weekly basis, and it averaged about 46 cases a day during the week of Oct. 20 and 35 cases a day during the week of Nov. 3. 

Kim said many of her peers at Michigan have become less cautious as the semester has progressed, with many letting their guards down and wearing masks less often.

“I’ve also noticed more people going out and partying on football weekends than I did at the beginning of the semester,” she said. “Greek life and individuals involved in Greek life especially have been known to break safety regulations, hold basements parties and seed infection clusters.”

As Thanksgiving approaches, states and counties across the nation have issued curfews or stay-at-home orders. Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio announced a 10 p.m. curfew for Ohioans, and the Michigan Department of Health asked colleges to move to remote learning beginning Nov. 18.

Additionally, the city of Evanston, where Northwestern is located, issued a stay-at-home order which began Nov. 16.

Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, signed an executive order that asks Wisconsin residents to stay home but did not have any specific recommendations for college students. Mitnick believes his peers have generally responded to the pandemic in a responsible manner.

“Although there are always a few who do not take the pandemic seriously the vast majority of students understand the gravity of this disease and that their actions contribute to the health and wellbeing of this community,” he said.

In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts implemented new directed health measures since mid-October, such as limiting bar capacity, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But even as cases rise, students are still finding ways to socialize. Miller said she can’t blame her peers, though, saying many students are “under-educated and under-informed about the harsh reality of this pandemic.”

“Thus, students resort to taking guidelines as mere ‘suggestions’ and still doing whatever they can to maintain some semblance of a normal college life that they may have had in semesters previous,” she said.

The future

UNL will conclude the fall 2020 semester the day before Thanksgiving. Students will have a two-month long winter break before reconvening for the spring semester on Jan. 25. 

However, Nebraska’s schedule seems to stand alone. Wisconsin and Illinois will end in-person classes at Thanksgiving, but the universities will conduct online classes until December 18. Michigan and Penn State will continue with in-person classes after Thanksgiving and also end the semester on Dec. 18. The University of Minnesota will continue with classes and wrap up its semester on Dec. 23. 

Minnesota, Michigan and Penn State will start the spring semester on Jan. 19. Wisconsin and Illinois will join Nebraska in starting a week later on Jan. 25. 

Many of the Big Ten universities have elected to cancel spring break in 2021. They instead plan to continue with classes, wrapping up the semester in late April or early May. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Rutgers and Maryland all continue to have a spring break scheduled.

Recent news regarding the efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine brings hope that an end to this public health crisis is nearing. However, with the end of spring being the earliest a vaccine could be widely distributed, colleges and universities will continue to face pandemic-related challenges on their campuses through next semester at the very least.

Constant readjustment will likely be required as the pandemic continues to evolve. Miller hopes that UNL, as well as colleges across the Big Ten and country, will apply lessons learned from this fall’s challenges. 

“I think there are undeniably ways the university’s response could have been improved,” she said. “I think we will see some of those adjustments made for the spring semester, especially regarding our testing policy as that continues to evolve. So, in some ways, that is what I most appreciate about the university’s response: the willingness and commitment to make change and be adaptive [to] the ever-evolving environment.”