October 29, 2020

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Weeks after universities reopened across much of Europe, thousands of students are in quarantine

Transmission on campuses in Europe mirror similar trends in the United States and around the world. Several major U.S. universities, including Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina, had to delay or cancel their plans for in-person classes in recent weeks, amid surges in infections.

Some European universities have opted to delay the return to in-person lectures, but policies and approaches vary substantially between countries and regions. In some European countries, college students are especially likely to live at home or return home most weekends, increasing the risk of intergenerational transmission and geographic spread.

In Germany, where the beginning of the winter lecture period is still a month away, most universities are preparing for a hybrid model, mixing virtual lectures with in-person seminars in smaller groups. They are seeking to avoid the criticism that has been directed at French universities, where students complained about overcrowded lecture halls after in-person teaching resumed.

A key concern among officials is the challenge campuses pose for thorough contact tracing, given the large number of people with whom many students interact face to face.

At Hôtelière de Lausanne, health officials said Wednesday there have been so many outbreaks within the student body that it was impossible to determine which students were exposed to the virus, so as to institute a more targeted quarantine. Instead, they ordered all undergraduates to stay inside.

The school did not disclose how many students have been infected, but it said those who have tested positive so far have reported only mild symptoms.

Last week the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, also enacted a mass quarantine.

The prestigious postgraduate institute “decided as a precautionary measure to have all our students in quarantine,” rector Federica Mogherini said on Twitter, after several coronavirus infections had been confirmed. “All our activities will be online for the next 2 weeks. Health & security of all are our absolute priority.”

At other European universities, parties and activities without social distancing had contributed to the spread of the virus, including at the École Hôtelière de Lausanne.

Swiss authorities said the virus appeared to have circulated at one or several private parties that took place before the canton of Vaud tightened restrictions last week, closing nightclubs and banning gatherings of more than 100 people.

The students responsible for throwing the parties have been disciplined, the École Hôtelière de Lausanne said in a statement shared with Reuters.

In Scotland, officials linked social activities during the first week of class to coronavirus outbreaks at multiple universities. At one residence hall in the city of Dundee, 500 students were asked to self-isolate this week, as contact tracing efforts were underway.

In addition, 600 people are in self-isolation in Glasgow after more than 120 students there tested positive for the virus at the city’s main university, whose administration added that “the actual number [of cases] is likely to be higher.”

On Thursday, Scottish universities and the government agreed to new guidelines, telling students not to socialize outside of their accommodations and barring them from parties and pubs, the BBC reported.

Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, said in response that he is “very concerned, about higher and further education.”

“Predictably, we have cases. Every country in the world that has brought universities back has got cases,” he told the BBC on Thursday. “We need to be very, very careful. Even though most of those cases will not get serious illness, some of them will, and some of them will potentially spread it to the community.”

Noori Farzan reported from Washington.

This report has been updated.