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COVID-19 on Campus: Trends, Tactics, and Tips to Stay Safe

Written by | Updated October 20, 2020
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Last Updated: 1 week ago
We've updated case counts in the states with the most college COVID-19 cases, added known case counts to states that are reporting K–12 numbers, and added tips about how to vote safely in your home or college state.

Even though schools across the US worked hard to put campus safety first, returning to school during a global pandemic that won’t let up is risky business.

An ongoing New York Times survey revealed that more than 178,000 total new positive COVID-19 cases have shown up on over 1,400 college campuses since the beginning of the pandemic.

Over 48,000 new coronavirus cases were reported on college campuses since the end of September.

But colleges and universities aren’t the only schools impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Elementary and secondary (K–12) schools are also facing outbreaks and no-win scenarios when it comes to the best ways to protect staff, faculty, and students—all while trying to maintain an effective learning environment.

There was an average of 230 positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 K–12 students during the first two weeks of September, according to a report by NPR.

To help you navigate the ever-changing landscape of education during COVID-19, we’re reporting on trends across the country. We’ll also highlight states or school districts that implement proactive strategies to protect the health and safety of students, staff, and faculty.

Plus, we’ve got tips and resources to help keep you and your students safe during this uncertain time.

Is your college town safe?

Find out in our Safest College Towns report. We ranked college towns across the US based on which ones report the fewest crimes, and we highlighted COVID-19 plans for the fall semester.

Coronavirus on college campuses

The New York Times tracker reports positive coronavirus cases at more than 1,400 colleges and universities nationwide—and not one state is unscathed.

Overall, 35 states have each reported over 1,000 coronavirus cases on college and university campuses.

Texas leads the way with over 14,500 cases among 82 schools. The Texas schools with the biggest case numbers are Texas Tech University (1,768), Texas A&M University (1,661), the University of Texas at Austin (1,361), and Baylor University (1,102).

College COVID-19 trends:

  • 90% of the top 10 states with the most college cases remain in the top 10 week over week.
  • Pennsylvania joined the list this week, with more than 7,000 positive cases reported on 92 different campuses.
  • 60% of the states with the most cases saw jumps higher than 25% between September 29 and October 8.
  • 40% of the states with the fewest college cases saw jumps higher than 100% between September 29 and October 8.
  • Three states saw COVID-19 cases climb more than 200% between September 29 and October 8—Montana, Wyoming, and Rhode Island.

How to vote on campus during the pandemic

Another outcome of the pandemic is how, where, and when students can vote safely. Many colleges that started with in-person classes have sent students home amid outbreaks. Others have canceled fall break—a time when many students planned to vote in their home state.

With voting registration deadlines looming, find out how to vote in whichever state you’ll call home on November 3.

Vote safely during the pandemic

If you’re voting in person, remember to follow these safety precautions:
—Wear a mask or other face covering.
—Wash hands often or use hand sanitizer.
—Avoid touching your face.
—Keep a physical distance, especially while waiting in line.

The top 10 states with the most college cases

State rankingCases*% increase since 09/29/20Change in ranking
1. Texas14,62615.7%-
2. Georgia9,82312.5%-
3. Florida9,16157.9%+4
4. Ohio9,04024.3%-
5. South Carolina8,15128.9%-
6. Alabama8,0858.1%-2
7. North Carolina7,45622.5%-1
8. Wisconsin7,23234.5%+1
9. Pennsylvania7,146N/ANEW
10. Indiana6,92633.2%-

*Total positive case numbers as of 10/08/20.

The top 10 states with the fewest college cases

State rankingCases*% increase since 09/29/20Change in ranking
1. Hawaii3223.0%-
2. Vermont412.5%-
3. Alaska7144.9%-
4. Maine7421.3%-
5. New Hampshire260122.2%+1
6. Montana372279.6%-1
7. Delaware50365.5%+3
8. Oregon504N/ANEW
9. Wyoming527211.8%-
10. Rhode Island554248.4%-2

*Total positive case numbers as of 10/08/20.

Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands also report low numbers. Puerto Rico has recorded two cases on one campus, and the Virgin Islands have seen only three cases at one school—with no increases since our last report.

Coronavirus at K–12 schools

Tracking COVID-19 in K–12 schools is no easy task. There isn’t a cohesive national approach for states and school districts to collect and share data on positive cases.

The New York Times is working to fill the gap of information by monitoring case counts from school districts and individual schools that are publicly releasing information. On top of analyzing public information, the Times is also conducting a rolling survey to try to get a better picture of how COVID-19 is showing up in the nation’s schools.

A CDC report shows that kids between 12 and 17 are twice as likely to test positive for the novel coronavirus than those aged 5 to 11.

Some states are going all-in when it comes to letting the public know about COVID-19 cases in schools, while others are releasing limited data. A full 10 states have declined to release any information at all about the novel coronavirus in K–12 schools.

Of the 21 states where districts or schools are reporting at least some of the positive cases, Texas once again lands on top. The Lone Star State has reported at least 4,500 coronavirus cases in grade schools.

The next highest numbers are Arkansas with nearly 3,000 and Mississippi with just over 2,000.

Nearly 60,000 positive COVID-19 cases in K–12 schools have been verified by The COVID Monitor: 32,526 student cases, 16,662 staff cases, and 9,774 unspecified cases.

States reporting K–12 coronavirus case numbers

These states have committed to publicly reporting on positive coronavirus cases in K–12 schools.

StateKnown cases*
Arkansas2,919
Colorado16
Hawaii78
Kentucky645
Michigan18
Montana88
New Hampshire18
New York65
North Carolina29
Ohio248
Oregon0
South Carolina414
Tennessee1,314
Vermont3

*Minimum known case counts from different reporting periods.

Proactive places

Connecticut plans to use rapid tests for COVID-19 in the state’s schools, starting with 69,000 tests next week.

In early October, Florida started releasing public data about coronavirus numbers in schools.

New York City will start random coronavirus testing in public schools next week.

States not disclosing K–12 coronavirus case numbers

These states have said “no” to publicly sharing data about coronavirus cases on K–12 campuses:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Idaho
  • North Dakota
  • Nebraska
  • Iowa
  • Oklahoma
  • Alabama
  • Pennsylvania
  • Maryland

Tips to stay safe on campus

  • Know the plan. Stay up-to-date on your school’s COVID-19 plans and policies. If possible, set up email or other alerts to make sure you don’t miss any changes to how your school is addressing the pandemic.
  • Bring a backup. If you’re a college, middle school, or high shool student, pack a spare mask or face covering in case you sneeze or otherwise dirty the one you’re wearing. For elementary students, tuck an extra mask into their backpack or lunchbox. Put the spare in a reusable baggie, and drop in the used mask when you swap them out.
  • Sanitize. Washing with soap and water is recommended as the most effective way to destroy the virus on our hands, but you can’t always find a sink when you need one. Pack a “COVID-19 kit” with hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. (This is a great place to stash that spare mask, too.)
  • Keep your distance. Whether it’s the lunchline or the restroom queue, make sure you practice social distancing. Maintain at least six feet between you and other students. If you have to be closer, keep your mask on for extra protection.

Get more tips for campus safety during the COVID-19 pandemic in our guide to staying safe at college.

Tips to stay safe during online learning

  • Stay up-to-date. Make sure that operating systems, apps, and antivirus software are updated on your laptop, tablet, or other device that’s used for online classes. Updates provide the latest fixes and patches for security vulnerabilities and new computer viruses.
  • Keep things private. Limit the information you or your children share in online classes or other forums. Keep things like full birthdates, social security numbers, and other identifying information off-limits.
  • Mind the camera. If you’re taking online classes at home, there’s more than your face on display. Make sure that whatever’s happening in your background is appropriate for the classroom environment—and don’t display things like to-do lists or the family calendar. Those bits of info can be a goldmine for online predators.

Learn more about protecting yourself online in our computer safety guide and check out our video chat safety checklist for younger students. We’ve also got some helpful videos that show you how to ensure privacy during online classes.

Written by Rebecca Edwards

Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past six. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month testing and evaluating security products and strategies. Her safety expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her work and contributions in places like TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, HGTV, MSN, and an ever-growing library of radio and TV clips. Learn more

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