Campus Life

Campus Greek Life and COVID-19

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Reports about students returning to campus for the fall semester are coming in from colleges and universities across America. Of course, the chief issue within those reports is how the students and administrations are handling testing for — and consequently, outbreaks of — COVID-19.


Two schools that have been in the news recently are the University of Alabama and Auburn University. This week, the Alabama Political Reporter revealed the news that the current on-campus semester is in danger at both Alabama and Auburn:

Officials at Auburn University and the University of Alabama are issuing warnings to students about the future of in-person classes following upticks in positive tests around the campuses and numerous videos and pictures of packed bars and large crowds of people not wearing face coverings.

Just days into the semester, Alabama has already canceled all on-campus events for the next 14 days and informed students that they could be subject to "harsh disciplinary action" for failing to follow health and safety protocols.

Those warnings came after a UA vice president told student groups that the campus would soon run out of quarantine areas and that the rates of positive tests are increasing dramatically …

Auburn reported 41 COVID cases for the past week — the first week of classes. That number is expected to rise significantly in the coming days, after numerous media outlets published photos of young people, presumably mostly students, jam-packed into bars, with no face masks in sight

That's just one report from the Southeast. The coronavirus is geographically blind: 228 Ohio State students receive interim suspensions for violating COVID-19 guidelines; USC reports 'alarming' COVID-19 outbreak at off-campus housing, over 100 students under quarantine; and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has reported that its "positivity rate" last week was 31.3 percent, listing infection numbers at specific dorms.

Not All News Is Bad News

These are just a few of the gloomy reports. However, there is some brighter news. For example, Northeastern University in Boston is increasing testing frequency and, as of August 20, the university had completed 6,573 tests, with 6,572 negative results and only one positive result. The University of Michigan posted a positivity rate of 0.9 percent with just 16 positive results from 1,696 tests for the week of August 16.

Naturally, one of the chief causes of campus outbreaks is student ignorance of safety guidelines, mainly not wearing masks and gathering closer than the specified six feet of social-distancing space. That's why Ohio State has issued its 228 interim suspensions. That applies to just the general student population, but what about Greek life, fraternities and sororities, perhaps the prime arena for raucous behavior?

New first-year college students may have considered the so-called "Greek Index" as part of their college selection process decisions. The index indicates how strongly fraternities and sororities rule campus life. At some schools, Greek life is dominant. Penn State, for example, has a total of 70 fraternities and sororities that students can rush. At some schools, the percentage of students involved in Greek life is surprising, as this list excerpt from U.S. News shows:

  • Washington and Lee University: 75%
  • Welch College: 71%
  • DePauw University: 67%
  • Wabash College: 64%
  • Millsaps College: 58%
  • The University of the South: 56%
  • Westminster College: 51%
  • Centre College: 50%
  • York College: 50%
  • Denison University: 48%

The obvious question that arises is: "If the general student population is so lax about COVID-19 safety protocols, what will life be like in a fraternity or sorority?" That's a logical query, so let's see what's happening on some Greek-heavy campuses.

How Is Greek Life Impacting COVID?

One particularly interesting source of current, pandemic-era, Greek life information comes from Inyoung Choi's article from Insider.com, College Greek life has already been stricken by coronavirus outbreaks, but canceling parties may not be enough to keep people safe. I had to laugh (you probably will too) at this quote: Campus Greek life leaders told Insider it's unlikely they can ensure "100% safety." That's a good one! Unlikely? Let's hear it for impossible! To wit:

In early July, the University of Washington announced that at least 145 of its students tested positive for the coronavirus.

The outbreak was tied to clusters of cases among Greek Life residents. The "Greek row outbreak," as it came to be known, was quickly followed by similar spikes at other universities. A week later, The University of California, Berkeley announced it saw an uptick from 23 to 47 new cases associated with "a series of recent parties connected to the CalGreek system."

Penn State's Interfraternity Council (IFC) also announced it will suspend social activities this month [July]. The announcement came after a student — not identified as a member of a fraternity — died from coronavirus.

At the University of Washington, fraternity houses were open and filled with students at 50% capacity when the Greek Row outbreak was announced, [senior Erik] Johnson told Insider. The houses remain open during the summer so that students can live in the residences while partaking in internships. Many sorority members also live in these fraternity houses over the summer because sorority houses close down, according to Johnson.

Johnson himself has been living in his fraternity throughout the outbreak and continues to live there. He said he's unable to return to his parents' house because of concerns he'll put some families with medical conditions at risk

Greek houses are professing respect for the coronavirus. They have cut back on their social agendas along with other activities and some have relegated their traditional rush period to virtual means. Of course, if you've ever seen the movie National Lampoon's Animal House, you may be wondering, as I am, how Greek members will be able to administer their rituals to pledges over the internet. Perhaps techies at leading engineering schools may be able to incorporate certain pledge habits into some form of virtual reality application.

Dartmouth College students understand the problems and risks involved with traditional Greek processes, but still have misgivings:

Ali Silva '23 said that while she was "a little bummed out" about not being able to do in person rush, she hopes that she will be able to participate more in Greek life during her sophomore summer. She added that while she wished she could get rush "out of the way" in the fall, she understands the decision.

"It's coming up really fast for sororities, and it would probably take a lot of work to get it together in time," Silva said.

Annie Politi '23 said that while she wished she could participate in a "normal" rush, she thinks that virtual rush will be an "uplifting experience" if everyone has an "optimistic attitude." However, she did acknowledge that virtual rush won't have the same "feeling" as an in person rush.

"It's going to be hard to replicate the feeling of going inside a house and being able to feel the atmosphere," Politi said. "However, I've had a lot of really positive virtual experiences with sisters in pre-rush events, so I'm still looking forward to rush."

The good news about in-person college, in general, right now is that some schools have isolated and largely contained COVID-19. The bad news is that other schools aren't having as much success and have either already pivoted to online-only classes or are on the brink.

All this applies directly, perhaps acutely, to campus Greek organizations. Incoming first-year students who are pondering joining a fraternity or sorority will have their decision process colored by this year's (and maybe future years') heavily modified recruiting activities.