Empty classroom.

Who’s to Blame for COVID-19 Outbreaks at Colleges and Universities?

By Sravya Chary

For many U.S. colleges and universities that opted for in-person instruction this fall, the return to campus during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven disastrous, and prompted the question: who’s to blame for these new outbreaks?

Although administrators are quick to blame student behavior, in this post, I will argue that the administrations are ultimately at fault – their negligence has put students’ health at risk and exacerbated the public health catastrophe.

A Surge in COVID-19 Cases at U.S. Colleges and Universities

Just one week into in-person instruction, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill switched gears to a fully remote semester after 140 students and five employees tested positive for COVID-19. According to administration, in that week the positivity rate on-campus rose from under 3% to a staggering 14%.

UNC-Chapel Hill is not the only university however, that opted for in-person learning and faced challenges upon reopening. According to the New York Times, more than 24,000 additional COVID-19 cases have been counted at U.S. colleges and universities since late August.

The Blame Game

As COVID-19 cases increase on college campuses, schools continue to issue statements conveying their disappointment in students.

Jonathan Sauls, associate vice chancellor for student affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill, stated that an overwhelming number of students were following university COVID-19 guidelines but, “[u]nfortunately, 90% compliance is not good enough.”

This assertion is shocking: Even the most robust of public health measures often do not require 90% compliance; expecting 100% compliance is simply outrageous. So who’s really to blame for campus COVID-19 outbreaks?

Negligence on Behalf of University Administrations

In a recent Bill of Health blog post, Shelly Simana sheds light on the prevailing question of whether or not individuals infected with coronavirus can sue those who transmitted the disease to them for negligence.

Following the framework for negligence that Simana outlined in the post, a compelling argument can be made for negligence on behalf of university administrations opting for in-person learning without adequate safety measures in place. The UNC-Chapel Hill case will be analyzed along this framework as an example.

Duty to Ensure the Safety of Students

There exists a “special relationship” between a college and its students, per a landmark ruling from the California Supreme Court. The decision argued that colleges and universities have a duty to protect students from any potential violence in school-sponsored activities. The rationale, per Justice Carol A. Corrigan: “Students are comparatively vulnerable and dependent on their colleges for a safe environment.”

Although this ruling may seem limited, its repercussions are widespread. An established special relationship extends a duty of care from the college to its students. Thus, colleges and universities are obligated to protect their students from activities that could cause harm (in this case, such activities may include resuming in-person instruction and on-campus residential life). 

A Breach of Duty

Following the second prong of the framework provided by Simana, it is vital to show that the aforementioned duty was breached.

A breach of duty to ensure the safety of students occurs, in this case, when students are hosted in close quarters on a college or university campus without proper safety measures, contact tracing, or COVID-19 testing. Further, all must be continuously enforced and all are required to uphold the duty to protect students.

In a letter to UNC-Chapel Hill, the Orange County Health Department provided the following recommendations:

  • First, to aggressively restrict campus housing to solely accommodate at-risk students without access to equitable educational resources and students with dire housing needs.
  • Second to, at a minimum, conduct the first five weeks of the fall semester remotely.

In response, UNC-Chapel Hill only reduced its residential capacity to 64%, and continued to offer many in-person courses.

Hosting students on campus and in classrooms and not closely adhering to the exact recommendations provided by the local public health agency is a breach of duty to protect students.

The Orange County Health Department recognized and articulated the threat of in-person learning at UNC-Chapel Hill and, by not abiding, the university put students’ health at risk.

Causal Connection

Now that a breach of duty has been identified, a causal connection between the breach of duty and harm to students must be established.

The UNC-Chapel Hill COVID-19 Tracker shows that on the first day of the semester, August 10, no new COVID-19 cases were reported. However, just a week into the semester, an aggregate of 168 cases were reported (although the number could potentially be much higher, considering unreported cases) with an increasing rate of daily positive cases until August 19.

Although a causal relationship cannot be concretely determined without further statistical analysis, a positive association between in-person learning coupled with students’ return to campus and new COVID-19 cases is glaringly evident. This sets the groundwork for a causal connection.


In this case, the damages may include student exposure to COVID-19, which could lead to hospital bills, other medical expenses, and potential suffering and death. Further, student exposure to COVID-19 could exacerbate demands on already at-capacity hospitals and healthcare facilities, threaten public health, and facilitate spread of the virus to students’ families and friends back home.

In the narrowest terms, at UNC-Chapel Hill, the damages took the form of 905 positive COVID-19 cases over the month of August.


Colleges and universities in similar situations to the one presented above should take the following steps to protect their communities:

  • First, drastically increase COVID-19 testing and contact tracing then quickly isolate positive cases and contacts. The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign has shown an on campus positivity rate of 0.52% over the last seven days compared to the CDC’s national average of 9%. At UIUC, testing is abundant and positive cases are immediately isolated while contacts are quarantined.
  • Second, rather than blaming the student body at large for an increase in cases, ask students to weigh in on the matter. Dartmouth College student Hannah Lang beautifully articulates the importance of amplifying student voices to help schools create a more robust COVID-19 response in her commentary for WBUR.
  • Finally, if all else fails and cases continue to increase, schools must consider moving to remote learning.

If schools opt for in-person learning, they must be vigilant in order to protect the health and safety of their students and communities at large. If a school fails on these measures, the administration should be held liable for the spread of COVID-19.


The above opinions are wholly my own and in no way represent the opinions of my associated institutions.

Sravya Chary

Sravya Chary is a manager in the pharmaceutical industry, a Master of Bioethics (MBE) candidate at Harvard Medical School, and a Petrie-Flom student fellow for the 2020-2021 academic year.

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