TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, with its lush green lawns and fancy Greek houses, is a world apart from the concrete high-rises at the university system's Birmingham campus nearly 60 miles away. But the schools were supposed to have the same clean slate when classes resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Every student had to test negative before setting foot on campus. Everyone had to use a smartphone application to check for symptoms daily. And everyone heard the same pleas from university leaders: Keep the campuses safe.
More than a month later, 2,375 Tuscaloosa students had tested positive for the virus, 6.2 percent of the student body, according to data through Oct. 1. Birmingham had 109 cases, a tiny 0.48 percent of the students.
Michael Saag, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Medicine and a leader of the state’s testing effort, said he expected some coronavirus cases to surface, but not at the ferocious rate they did.
“I was surprised that it happened so fast,” Saag said.
The staggering disparity at two of Alabama’s large universities illustrates how the coronavirus can barrel through some schools while barely affecting others, even in a state that is considered a hot spot. Experts say it is difficult to pinpoint why Tuscaloosa and other universities faced outbreaks and others did not, but they suspect that enrollment size, the campus culture and students’ ages probably played roles. The result is that students at one school managed to enjoy a semblance of typical college life, while the other campus’s culture was upended.
Saag said he empathized with students because college is about more than going to class; it’s about socializing, networking and exploring life on their own.
“It’s about meeting people and developing really what turn out to be lifelong friends,” he said, calling those impulses “the fabric of what makes the college experience so special.”
“What’s happening is that the virus has invaded that fabric, and to the point where it’s threatening the very essence of what being in college is about,” Saag said.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) spent millions of dollars to reopen schools and colleges, providing widespread testing, masks and funding for crews to install plexiglass shields in classrooms. Ivey also mandated masks statewide.
A spokeswoman for Ivey declined to address the discrepancies among the campuses but said she felt that the outbreaks were slight and that the experiment with reopening schools is largely working.
The governor “acknowledged that yes, we will see a slight increase in cases with a return to the school building,” spokeswoman Gina Maiola said. “But Alabama is showing the nation that a safe return to school is possible and the right course of action.”
None of the infections on either campus have been traced to the classrooms, campus officials said, which means students apparently spread the virus on their own while out in the community.
To some, the reasons for the disparity are obvious: The University of Alabama flagship campus in Tuscaloosa has 37,842 students, making it larger, and younger, than Birmingham, which has 22,500 students. The Tuscaloosa campus also has ranked as the nation’s No. 1 party school, according to the Princeton Review, with a feverish devotion to the Crimson Tide football team and a large Greek system so powerful that it is nicknamed “the Machine.” About 1 in 4 Tuscaloosa students live in dormitories or Greek houses, compared with 1 in 10 at UAB.
“Alabama has a very large party culture,” Zachary Johnson, 19, a sophomore majoring in news media at the campus in Tuscaloosa, said in late summer as cases surged. “Many people want to go out and party.”
University officials tried to curb those impulses by moving the Greek rush recruitment program online, and both schools barred outside visitors from entering dorms. But there are other key differences: Tuscaloosa did not switch to take-out-only dining halls until after classes began, while Birmingham started that at the outset. Nearly half of Birmingham’s students are attending class online this semester, while most of Tuscaloosa’s opted to return to campus for a mix of in-person and virtual courses.
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox (D) said coronavirus clusters popped up in fraternities and dorms. And crowds swelled on “the Strip,” a dimly lit area of town packed with bars, late-night eateries and golf-cart taxi system called “Joyride.”
Maddox, whose daughter attends the school in the city of 100,000, closed bars for two weeks after hundreds of students were infected. University officials have issued sanctions to approximately 1,440 students, including 51 suspensions, mostly for failing to wear masks or for attending unauthorized gatherings, said spokeswoman Monica Watts. Thirteen student organizations have been cited for violating the rules, she said.
But tamping down the school’s party culture has limits, students said, because some apparently caught the virus while in small gatherings.
Brady Johnson, a 23-year-old senior majoring in chemical engineering at the Tuscaloosa campus, caught the virus after sitting around in his living room for less than an hour with two other friends who were more than six feet apart.
Johnson said he always wears a mask in public but could envision removing it if he were with a small number of close friends who are more like family, even though that is possibly how he became infected. He said he believes it unlikely that he would get the virus again.
“I don’t want to live my life in fear. I still want to have a somewhat normal semester,” he said. “Am I going to wear a mask for three hours while I’m hanging out with my friends? I don’t see it as plausible.”
Zachary Bourg, 18, a freshman from Georgia, said he wore a mask constantly after arriving on campus, except for a 45-minute outdoor soccer game.
“I hate myself for it, because it was one time I was in a group with a very small amount of people,” he said.
Then came the phone call that a friend had the virus. Then Bourg tested positive. Thirty minutes later, the university sent him to an apartment it had set aside for students to isolate. Soon a pair of fraternity brothers who had tested positive — and had lost their sense of taste and smell — were sent to join him. Bourg said that he never had any symptoms but that the experience was sometimes lonely and scary. He said he now will be more careful.
“I think it’s really up to the students now and how we contain the virus,” Bourg said.
'Heroes work here'
Sixty miles northeast sits UAB — sometimes called the “university that ate Birmingham” — a fast-growing string of red-and-gray concrete buildings next to the state’s largest hospital system, a teaching facility affiliated with the university. UAB President Ray Watts is a physician.
Students share sidewalks with doctors and nurses treating patients, including those suffering from covid-19. A sign posted on Birmingham’s University Boulevard says “Heroes work here.”
Ria Hearld, an associate professor in the UAB Department of Health Services Administration and chair of the Faculty Senate until Sept. 1, said she suspected one reason coronavirus infections at UAB remain low is because many students major in health care and have a front-row view of the hospitals treating covid-19 patients.
“These are our friends, our colleagues, at the front lines,” she said. “It really hits home.”
Tyler Huang, 21, president of the student government association, said Birmingham also might have fewer cases because the school is smaller and willing to follow the university’s set of rules.
“Students abided by it,” he said. “I think they really wanted to remain healthy and on campus.”
Fewer than 10 UAB students and one student organization have been cited for failing to socially distance or wear masks, said UAB spokesman Tyler Greer.
Contact tracing showed that more than 90 percent of students who tested positive probably caught the virus off campus, said UAB spokesman Jim Bakken. About 10 percent of infected UAB students are learning remotely and never returned to school for the semester. Since they are students, their infections count among the statistics. Officials also asked local bars and restaurants to sign pledges that they would help prevent the spread of the virus, and many did.
To accommodate commuting students, the university opened the cavernous concourse of the UAB basketball arena, providing tables, chairs and WiFi, so students can eat and study there between classes. The student union also has only one chair to a table, Bakken said, so students can stay safely apart while still socializing.
Steven Horison, 21, a junior finance major who lives with two roommates off campus, said he was not surprised that Birmingham fared better than Tuscaloosa.
“ ’Bama’s just a party school,” he said as he and a small group of friends filmed videos on the UAB campus green to upload on YouTube. “This is the medical school. They take it a lot more seriously.”
Birmingham is so quiet, he said, that many students like to take the hour’s drive to Tuscaloosa on weekends. He considered a trip for Labor Day but canceled it when he called a friend at the school and learned he had covid-19.
At first, the University of Alabama system’s medical experts were unsure whether the schools would stay open all year.
Much is at stake: UAB and the affiliated health system is one of state’s largest employers, and it would be a huge community burden should the teaching university close. The Tuscaloosa campus has a $2 billion a year impact on the metropolitan area in terms of jobs and tax revenue, the mayor said. But doctors were worried.
“All it takes is one or two people as a superspreader in an environment where there’s a lot of people crowded together speaking, singing, shouting, whatever,” said Saag, the infectious-disease expert. “And that’s part of the experience. And the students certainly were told to try to avoid those situations. But heck, it’s hard to message.”
After the outbreak in Tuscaloosa, a pall fell over campus. Greek row looked deserted. The football stadium fell silent. With bars closed, even the Strip appeared barren.
Some students described campus as boring, nothing like their expectation of college life.
“I often find myself thinking, ‘How much money have I wasted?’ ” said Erin Shelton, 18, a first-year art major from Huntsville, Ala., whose senior year in high school also was disrupted by the virus. “My parents wanted me to be able to have my college experience.”
In Birmingham, students hung out in bars and cheered for the Blazers football team at Legion Field in early September. Mask-wearing cheerleaders shouted from the stands, and concessions sold nachos and beer to people who sipped them sitting far apart in the stadium.
The game was far less festive than usual: Officials canceled the halftime show, and the parking lot, normally packed with tailgaters, bounce houses and tents serving barbecued ribs, was dark and filled with cars.
In the stands, fans said they were fine with that for now.
“I don’t go to the clubs,” said Jymeelah Kirk, a 22-year-old graduate student studying education at UAB. “I don’t remember the last big party.”
In the weeks that followed, Tuscaloosa became more like Birmingham. Parties dwindled. More students wore masks. And the number of new infections fell.
Richard “Ricky” Friend, dean of the school’s College of Community Health Sciences, attributed the decline to widespread testing on campus, including random testing of students and faculty and staff members, and a concerted effort among students and staffers to take more precautions.
Some students did not wear masks properly, so campus police stopped them to ask that they cover their noses and mouths. Some were not staying six feet apart, so school officials emphasized that the distance is roughly the equivalent of both arms outstretched. Fliers reminded students to sing the school’s fight song while washing their hands to ensure they soaped and rinsed long enough to remove germs.
Campus medical experts this week said they are far more hopeful that students will remain in class at both campuses. “We plan on being here all year,” Friend said.
The Crimson Tide held its home football opener on Oct. 3, with lots of mask-wearing and none of the partying that made Tuscaloosa famous. They clobbered Texas A&M, 52-24.
The scores that mattered most appeared the day prior: Birmingham reported just 19 new student infections in the previous week. Tuscaloosa reported 24.