NOEL KING, HOST:
Spring semester has started for colleges and universities. And new data shows some have decided they're ready to bring students back to campus. They'll offer more in-person classes than they were in the fall even though coronavirus rates are high in almost every college town in this country. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been following this story for months. Good morning, Elissa.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: What does the data tell us about reopenings?
NADWORNY: Well, according to the College Crisis Initiative, more than a quarter of colleges are offering some in-person component for the spring. That's more likely to happen among smaller schools and private four-year colleges. Here's Christopher Marsicano, who leads that research team based at Davidson College in North Carolina.
CHRISTOPHER MARSICANO: We're not seeing many institutions go from fully online to fully in-person. But I think they are trying to have more in-person classes because that's what students want. That's where the demand is.
KING: OK. So incremental changes based on demand makes complete sense. What does it mean for students, though?
NADWORNY: Well, one example is Spelman College. So they're a small, historically Black women's college in Atlanta. They were online last fall. But this semester, they let about 250 students come back to campus with some in-person classes. I talked with freshman Ayiana Davis Polen after she moved into her dorm last week.
AYIANA DAVIS POLEN: Obviously, it's going to be - have some restrictions. But I think I will definitely get some sort of college experience, especially because, like, I'm going to have that social factor. I'll be able to, you know, actually be with people in person.
NADWORNY: So even though Ayiana is back on campus, all but one of her classes remain virtual. And that's how millions of college students are doing college this semester. More than a thousand institutions are still primarily online.
KING: It is still very early in the spring semester. But for colleges that have brought students back, what does the virus spread look like in those areas?
NADWORNY: Well, many of them are seeing a lot of positive cases. You know, some campuses are reporting the highest number they've seen all year. Several campuses, including the University of Michigan, Union College in upstate New York have enforced two-week lockdowns already to try and stop that initial spread. But numbers remain high in communities. So there has been a trend to keep pushing back the start date for in-person classes. So learning may be started online for the first couple of weeks with plans to go in-person later.
KING: You were on the road for fall semester, reporting the whole time.
KING: What did everyone learn over the fall, through the fall?
NADWORNY: Well, we learned that in-person classes were not where coronavirus was spreading. Instead, it was things that we witnessed, overflowing bar scenes, parties, lots of students living in the same house. Testing was key. So you got to test everybody on campus regularly, which we know is expensive. And the other thing we learned is colleges aren't insular. College cases did spread to the surrounding community. I talked with Paraic Kenny. He's a biologist who's been sequencing the coronavirus. He found the same virus strain among college students in La Crosse, Wisc., matched the one they found weeks later in local nursing homes.
PARAIC KENNY: The campus exists in a society. It's integrated closely with a town. By the time the calendar rolled up to the end of the year, we had 33 deaths in local nursing home facilities with individuals who shared the same virus that was circulating on the college campus, you know, in August, September, October.
NADWORNY: Now, vaccinations are going to help keep vulnerable populations safe, like those in nursing homes. But like we saw in the fall, the start of the semester is the hardest, with students returning from all over. So colleges I've talked to, they say they hope lockdowns, frequent testing can get that initial spike under control.
KING: NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thanks, Elissa.
NADWORNY: You bet. Thank you.
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