On August 16, dozens upon dozens of students wrap around the barrier in front of Gallettes, a local haunt in Tuscaloosa. It’s the end of formal sorority recruitment at the University of Alabama. One student smirks; his eyes are covered by sunglasses, but no mask conceals his mouth. There are four, maybe five masks in the crowd of roughly 100 people packed tightly together. Someone snaps a photograph. The image is circulated widely.
The university released data on its first batch of COVID-19 test results eight days later. Between August 19, when classes started, and August 24, 562 students tested positive for the virus. A few days passed, and another batch of results was posted—this time 481 students tested positive over a three-day period. “There was definitely frustration, because we knew the possibility of that happening,” Mikayla Wyatt, an opinion editor at the student newspaper The Crimson White, told me. “The university should have suspended Greek activities in the first place.”
For months, local news outlets, including student newspapers, had been pointing out flaws in the university’s plan to reopen campus for in-person classes during the pandemic. Institutions like the University of Alabama are built for close contact—the undergraduate population is composed of 38,000 students who study together, eat lunch together, play beer pong together—which makes them highly susceptible to mass infections. But even on the simple measures, such as suspending Greek activities, several institutions fell short.