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Examining the number of COVID-19 cases on East Texas college campuses

Colleges and universities publish varying degrees of information, making it difficult to truly understand how coronavirus has spread during the fall semester.

TYLER, Texas — Since a growing percentage of COVID-19 cases are being spread by 20-somethings, many public health experts were concerned about what would happen when college students returned to campus. 

However, this fall semester has been a success for most colleges in East Texas.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced significant changes to college life at every school. Schools that welcomed students back to campus required face coverings and social distancing and found ways to limit the number of students in a classroom at a time. Others chose to only offer online courses.

There is not a simple way to determine if those changes are working and which schools made the best decisions, in part because there is no standard for reporting. Some schools post detailed information to their websites and do so frequently, others publish minimal information, and some have chosen to release nothing at all.

UT Tyler posts on its website the number of confirmed cases among members of its campus community each week. Since the semester began, the school says its faculty and students have combined to test positive twice. A university spokesperson mentioned that since testing is voluntary, the number of students and faculty being tested is low, so the school is not sharing that figure because it might make it easier to identify the people involved.

Stephen F. Austin State University said 90 students have tested positive since mid-July, but more than half of those came in the last week. Additionally, 18 staff members have tested positive since summer, but only one in the past seven days.

Tyler Junior College does not post totals to its website, but it sends out alerts each day a positive test is returned as part of its Clery Act communications, which are sent any time a crime is committed on campus or something happens to put students and staff at risk. Those letters indicate 24 confirmed cases among students and staff since the semester began.

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LeTourneau University tested every student when they came back in August, and of the 1,286 tests, only 20, or 1.7%, were positive. Since then, a spokesperson said only six more students have been forced to isolate, either because of a positive test or because of close contact with someone who tested positive. 

According to LeTourneau’s president, Dr. Dale Lunsford, four faculty members tested positive during the orientation period, as well.

Texas College reports on its website that it has had one confirmed case of COVID-19, but its classes are all online. Wiley College is also online and has not publicly announced any cases among its students or staff. Kilgore College also has not published any information about COVID-19 cases, though it is holding classes in person.

Together, those schools have more than 30,000 students and 143 confirmed cases, meaning less than half a percent of all their students have tested positive. 

However, since testing is voluntary and testing information is limited, there is not a clean answer as to whether the fall semester has hastened or slowed the spread of the virus.

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