Usha Reddi snapped photos of Kansas State University students hanging out at a bar in tightly packed groups with hardly a mask in sight. Reddi, the mayor of Manhattan, home to Kansas State, posted those photos on Facebook, which prompted hundreds of comments — including some unpleasant ones directed at her. But she doesn’t regret the post. “Let’s not live a lie that students are going to come and socially distance and wear a face mask and be fine with it,” Reddi says. “That’s not what’s going to be happening.”Mayors of college towns find themselves in an awkward spot as the fall semester gets underway. They are often working closely with college officials on policy related to the pandemic. They’re usually — though not always — sending the same message on the need for social-distancing, mask-wearing, and testing. At the same time, mayors also have to keep in mind their surrounding communities, and the fact that what’s best for the college is not necessarily what’s best for everyone else.
Courtesy Reddi for Senate
Four Kansas State sororities were found to be the source of outbreaks in recent days, which has caused case numbers to spike. The on-campus positivity rate was reported to be nearly 20 percent last week. That’s the kind of news Reddi watches with a sense of alarm (the mayor says she can’t remember the last time she slept well). One reason is that if positivity rates at schools in Manhattan top 10 percent, then schools will consider switching back to remote learning. That’s the last thing Reddi, who was a first-grade teacher for a decade, wants to see. “If the university chooses to go remote, 18-year-old students can handle it,” she says. “But first graders, second graders, they can’t handle it, and it impacts our families.”Like other institutions, Kansas State published a lengthy, detailed plan laying out the “protocols to protect the health and safety of all members of the K-State family,” with the requisite sections on temperature checks, disinfecting, and quarantine. The university also announced last week that it plans to install devices that emit dry hydrogen peroxide in dorms, in an effort to purify the air. “I think they have good plans, and I certainly don’t want to do anything to admonish the leadership at K-State,” Reddi says. Still, she worries that students simply disregard guidelines when they’re not under the university’s watchful eye. “I walk to campus, and they’re all wearing their masks and social-distancing,” she says. “But in the community, it’s different.”
At first I was very proactive, then I was very worried, and then I was depressed. I don’t want to sit back and watch all of this happen.
Mayor Levar M. Stoney of Richmond, Va., sounded a similar note of concern in an open letter he sent to four colleges in his city last week. He wrote that the “massive influx” of students would have an impact on the “health and safety of the city as a whole.” He asked that administrators require students to download a contact-tracing app, writing that the colleges “owe accountability to their neighbors.” Meanwhile, at a news conference, Mayor Martin Walsh of Boston, spoke directly to students. “You want to be treated as an adult? Act as an adult,” he said.At the University of Alabama, more than a thousand cases among faculty members, staff, and students have been reported since classes resumed less than two weeks ago, nearly half of those cases on the Tuscaloosa campus. Mayor Walt Maddox of Tuscaloosa, responded to photos of people gathering outside a bar with exasperation. “Why?” he wrote on Twitter. “We are desperately trying to protect @tuscaloosacity. We are trying to have a college football season.” He told The Washington Post last week that “fall in Tuscaloosa is in serious jeopardy.” Maddox also announced that he was closing bars for the next two weeks.
Mayors tend to toe the line between expressing general concern, and directly criticizing the decision to resume in-person classes. Mayor Patrick Wojahn of College Park, Md., home to the University of Maryland’s flagship campus, says he has been in near-constant communication with university officials. Wojahn says he pushed over the summer to allow students to break housing agreements, a move that he believes substantially reduced the number of students who have returned to the area. He describes maintaining a “good working relationship” with administrators — but that doesn’t mean he’s confident that they have things under control. “I’m still somewhat worried that, even with all the preparation work, it’s possible that nothing we do will stop a surge in cases,” he says. “There may come a point down the road where we will have to have to decide that all classes will be virtual for the rest of the semester.” Classes at the University of Maryland will be held online until mid-September, though undergraduates started returning to residence halls last week.Early last month, Mayor Miro Weinberger of Burlington, Vt., wrote an open letter to Suresh Garimella, president of the University of Vermont, in which he cited his concerns over the university’s approach to testing and whether officials could be sure that students were following safety guidelines off campus. He called for penalties for students who skipped regular Covid-19 tests. Garimella responded in a letter that the university’s testing plan, which requires weekly tests, “is one of the most aggressive in the entire nation.” The university and the city have since agreed to allow ticketing of students who flout the rules.Reddi, the mayor of Manhattan, hasn’t gone that far. In her town, even requiring masks has been controversial; a billboard has been put up calling her “Radical Reddi,” and some have called for her removal. Reddi admits that she “kind of wishes all universities decided to wait on reopening,” but now that it’s happening, she’s staying in daily touch with officials, keeping track of the numbers, and hoping for the best. “At first I was very proactive, then I was very worried, and then I was depressed. I don’t want to sit back and watch all of this happen,” she says. “I’m just tense because right now, it’s not looking so good.”