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School reopenings off to a rocky start as students and faculty test positive across the country

Monday was the first day of school in some parts of the country but an outbreak at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is forcing the school to go entirely remote learning.

It was a busy, hectic weekend for colleges across the country bringing students back on campus. And yet, if this were a test of whether students could adhere to mask and social distancing requirements, it's clear many would fail.

"I mean, there's still parties going on. There's still people not wearing masks," one UNC student told CBS News.

Videos showing UNC students partying without masks and ignoring social distancing led to a blunt editorial in the student newspaper. "We all saw this coming," it said. "We're angry — and we're scared." 

Students seen on a slip and slide amid the coronavirus pandemic. CBS News
Students seen gathering close together outside a party amid the coronavirus pandemic as schools begin to reopen. CBS News

Late on Monday, the university moved all of its undergraduate classes online after 130 students tested positive for the coronavirus in the last week.

And a warning about younger kids who are returning to school: "We've certainly seen that there could be some more severe damage done to the heart and in some of these rare cases," said Dr. Nicholas Rister, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas.

Nationwide, more than 560 school districts are starting the year off in person. New safety protocols inside a high school in Wylie, Texas, include tables inside the cafeteria with markings to remind students to keep their distance.

"I worry that we will see an increase [in cases], especially in those populations cause they're just not going to effectively social distance in many cases," Rister said. "Teenagers and young adults can be tricky because you do feel a bit of invulnerability, the social pressure to fit in and do things."

An Arizona school district that was supposed to open Monday had to cancel classes after nearly 100 teachers called in sick, citing health concerns. Parents also have lingering concerns.

"I don't want my daughter to lose the drive for school," said Amber Bachmeier. "I don't want her to not want to learn anymore, and that is what is happening." 

The University of Notre Dame is also reporting a spike in coronavirus cases, with 58 confirmed since the start of school earlier this month. In Fort Worth, the semester just started on the Texas Christian University campus Monday. Face masks are required for everyone, and so far, the school is only reporting 14 confirmed cases involving a student or staff member.

Schools in Georgia were among the first to reopen this summer, and already, at least three districts there are seeing large outbreaks. Some parents blame the crisis on vague policies over the use of wearing protective face masks in school — which has led some districts to take matters into their own hands.

Jefferson City High School is typical for Georgia: masks are only recommended. Seniors Hope Terhune and Rylee Meadows said maybe half the students wear one. 

"Every single day I think there's less and less kids wearing masks," Meadows tells CBS News. 

The two students started a petition to mandate masks. Roughly 2,000 people signed it already.

"I just don't understand why everyone wouldn't want to wear one to keep other people safe," said Terhune.

In Georgia's Cherokee County, seniors at Etowah High School were seen flashing perfect smiles. Not one mask in the picture. At North Paulding High, where photos of kids without masks jammed into a hallway went viral, 35 people have tested positive. 

But many parents oppose masks, one repeating false information at Paulding County's school board meeting. 

Georgia has become a COVID-19 hotspot, averaging more than 3,400 new cases a day. Only 43 of the state's 181 school districts mandate masks for teachers and students.

State Representative Beth Moore launched REPORTMYSCHOOL, a whistleblower email account where students and faculty can send information on unsafe conditions. Moore says the account has received more than 800 emails in 10 days, mostly from faculty.

"And they're being told if they don't like it, they should just quit there job," Moore said.

Meadows and Terhune worry crowded hallways will spread the virus.

"I feel it's inevitable that it's gonna happen to our school," Meadows said.

It did in Cherokee County. Through the first two weeks of school, more than 1,700 students and staff were quarantined. At least 120 people tested positive.

Mark Strassmann contributed reporting.

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