coronavirus illinois

How Much Are Colleges Contributing to Rise in COVID-19 Cases? Here's What the Data Shows

NBC 5 Investigates and Telemundo Investiga have been tracking coronavirus cases that have emerged on colleges campuses across the country since students returned for their fall semesters and quarters

Coronavirus cases have been rising in Illinois and many of its surrounding states this fall as health experts brace for a second wave during flu season, and while testing numbers could play a large role in the increased numbers, there's another factor that may be contributing to the spike: the return to school at colleges and universities in the Midwest.

NBC 5 Investigates and Telemundo Investiga have been tracking coronavirus cases that have emerged on college campuses across the country since students returned for their fall semesters and quarters.

We’re now tracking more than 600 colleges, universities, and HBCUs across the country – with a specific focus on four-year colleges most attended by students from Illinois.

As of Wednesday morning, data showed more than 157,000 [157,055] new cases of coronavirus, contracted mainly by students, but also by faculty and university staff, just since the fall sessions began at these universities.

We’ve been paying particular attention to colleges in Illinois, and the surrounding midwestern states of Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri and Kentucky – where large numbers of Illinois students choose to attend a variety of schools, ranging from tiny colleges to large universities.

Leading our Midwest tracking is Wisconsin, where data showed more than 7,600 [7,691] coronavirus cases among students and employees at universities, ranging from the massive University of Wisconsin school system to smaller colleges in towns like Kenosha, Beloit, and Appleton. 

Wisconsin’s cases are now soaring daily and have been heading steeply upwards since early September. Coincidentally, students began returning to many Wisconsin colleges in mid to late August and the University of Wisconsin college system began class schedules a week after Labor Day.

The number of coronavirus cases on campuses changes every day.  As of Wednesday, NBC 5 Investigates and Telemundo Investiga found that the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison had the sixth highest number of coronavirus cases reported of any campus in the U.S. – at 3,174 since the fall semester began.

Most of the universities that have amassed more cases than UW Madison – including Clemson University (ranking first with 3,997 cases), the University of Georgia (ranking second with 3,437 cases), and the University of Florida (ranking fourth with 3,269 cases) – started their classes two and even three weeks earlier than UW Madison – meaning that UW has amassed its high number of positive coronavirus cases in far less time.

Currently, the university is preparing students for the Thanksgiving holiday, warning of potential needs for quarantine, and is adding precautions for the start of Badgers football. Last week, the university announced only essential personnel would be allowed in stadiums and urged fans to avoid gatherings.

“Given the high rates of infection in the state of Wisconsin, we don’t want anyone in the stadium who doesn’t need to be there,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a statement. “I’ve said that our fans should think about all of our football games as away games this year. We’re asking fans in Madison to follow public health guidelines and avoid gatherings with anyone outside their household. We’re asking our fans around the state to watch the games at home.”

Notably, five schools in the Big Ten Conference are currently in the top 10 in terms of coronavirus cases on campuses:

  • Penn State University currently ranks 3rd in our list of colleges, with 3,355 new cases of coronavirus cases on campus, since the fall semester began.
  • Ohio State University currently ranks 5th, with 3,193 cases;
  • UW Madison holds 6th place;
  • Indiana University currently ranks 7th, with 2,908 cases
  • and the University of Illinois currently ranks 8th, with 2,676 new cases of coronavirus on its Champaign-Urbana campus, just since the fall semester began.

The state of Indiana, which is also seeing coronavirus cases climb sharply in recent days, has seen more than 7,300 [7,326] cases on its various college campuses during the fall semester, NBC 5 Investigates found.

Indiana is followed by Illinois, where we’ve tracked a total of 7,035 cases so far; then Missouri, with 6,341 on-campus cases, and Iowa with 4,491 cases.

For Illinois in particular, NBC 5 Investigates and Telemundo Investiga  are currently tracking 69 universities and colleges, including some community colleges. To date, we’ve found that nine of those colleges have no clear information on potential campus coronavirus cases on their websites. That could be a violation of federal “Clery” laws, which require disclosure of safety and health statistics for any college receiving federal funds.

Of the 60 other Illinois universities and colleges, here are the top rankings:

  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (2,676 new cases of coronavirus on campus, since the fall semester began)
  • Illinois State University (1,380)
  • Bradley University (334)
  • Northern Illinois University (315)
  • Eastern Illinois University (305)

However, when NBC 5 Investigates looked at Illinois’ college cases compared to each colleges’ attendance figures, we found that Quincy University – a small college in Quincy, Illinois – topped the list for their proportion of coronavirus cases to attendance. So far, the school has reported a total of 110 cases on campus. The school’s attendance is approximately 1,185 students, meaning that more than 9% [9.28%] of Quincy University students and employees have tested positive for coronavirus, since the fall session began.

Second in terms of proportion of coronavirus cases to student attendance is Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. The campus of approximately 1,677 students has reported 115 cases so far, which calculates to 6.86% of the school’s attendance.

Third is Illinois State University, near Illinois Wesleyan in neighboring Normal, Illinois, where the 1,380 reported cases this fall – when measured against the approximately 20,635 kids who attend school there – come to 6.69% of the school's population.

Fourth is Bradley University in Peoria. Approximately 5,882 students attend Bradley, which has so far reported 334 new coronavirus cases on campus, or 5.68% of the school’s population.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, tops in terms of the raw number of new coronavirus cases this fall, actually comes in fifth, when judged in proportion of the school’s student attendance. New coronavirus cases right now are 5.38% of the school’s population.

There is some debate, however, of how to consider U of I’s large caseload, because the university has famously spearheaded a coronavirus test, and allowed large numbers of students to take it.

NBC 5 Investigates and Telemundo Investiga are also tracking the total number of cases at the schools that comprise the Big Ten Conference – as athletic events, including football, are set to resume at those schools. Just since the fall session at those 14 colleges began less than two months ago, Big Ten colleges have amassed a total of 22,578 new coronavirus cases as of Wednesday morning, NBC 5 Investigates has found.

As the semester moves on, many colleges have said they will switch to all-remote learning after the Thanksgiving holidays. That brings up the prospect of many students returning home for the Thanksgiving holidays – and then staying home as they complete their classes online, through the first part of December.

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