A late-semester spike in coronavirus cases at Johns Hopkins University, spurred by recent social events, has some students pleading for the option to take exams online.
By Susan Svrluga
The spike shocked some students because of the school’s international reputation in public health and its early and enduring warnings about the dangers of the pandemic.
Some students worried that a concert at the university’s Spring Fair, headlined by rapper Meek Mill and held indoors, had touched off an outbreak.
A spokeswoman for the university, Jill Rosen, wrote in an email Tuesday that the recent increase in cases among undergraduates “has been traced mainly to end-of-year social activities.” Contact tracing indicated that the concert was just one of several factors, Rosen noted, including a number of off-campus social events.
The event was planned and held at a time when transmission on campus was low, she said, and it was held in accordance with the pandemic protocols Hopkins had in place at the time. Those allowed for gatherings without mask requirements so long as attendees were fully vaccinated and boosted. Masks were encouraged, she said, and attendance capacity at the concert was limited.
On Friday, a message to students from university leaders said the event “is a reminder that even in a population with universal vaccination such as ours, the virus can still spread.” The school’s covid dashboard said 99 percent of its students and employees are fully vaccinated.
University leaders announced additional protocols through the end of the semester, such as required twice-weekly testing, and masks in libraries, study sites and events of more than 50 people. Masks have long been required in classrooms, and requirements for their use had recently been reinstated in common areas of dormitories and in campus dining spaces when people aren’t actively eating or drinking. Through the end of the semester, food and drinks for indoor events for groups of 50 or more people must be offered outside, or as grab-and-go options.
An online petition to have online final exams for undergraduates this spring had garnered more than 1,300 digital signatures Tuesday. “The main reason is covid exposure and concerns about our health,” the petition’s author wrote. “So many students are quarantined or isolated right now, they will miss their original exam time(s) ….”
University leaders responded noting students’ concerns and acknowledging that the end of the semester combined with a rise in cases was stressful. “We do not plan to pivot entirely to online examinations, but we have taken several steps to ensure that students can successfully and safely conclude the academic year,” they wrote, including reminding instructors that students in university-imposed isolation must not be penalized for failing to attend a class or exam in person.
Several area colleges reinstated some pandemic rules such as mask mandates after seeing a rise in virus cases earlier this spring, including Hopkins and Georgetown University last month. Gallaudet and Howard universities switched temporarily to virtual classes.
Some students also worried that the lack of available isolation housing had led to some students isolating in place, perhaps putting roommates and neighbors at risk.
Sai Dharmasena, a 19-year-old from Texas, said some professors have been understanding even during finals “hell week.” But many remain strict, and “covid is still a very real threat,” she said. “And we’re going home in a week, going home to our elderly relatives — or our immunocompromised family.”