Duke fraternities disaffiliated from university to host rush. Now, the campus is on lockdown

By Kate Murphy
The News & Observer/TNS
A view of the Duke University Campus Building in Durham, North Carolina. Nine fraternities disaffiliated from Duke ran their recruitment process this spring, leading to an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

RALEIGH, N.C. - Duke University students were not supposed to rush fraternities this spring. Not because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because the university decided to move rush to the fall semester and exclude first-year students.

But nine fraternities disaffiliated from Duke and ran their own recruitment process anyway, which led to an outbreak of COVID-19 cases and Duke’s decision over the weekend to impose a temporary campus lockdown for thousands of undergraduate students.

While not the only cause of coronavirus cases, rush events are one of the most obvious differences between now and the fall semester, when Duke received national recognition for keeping COVID-19 cases under control with mass testing and strict campus protocols.

Duke students are now taking all their classes online and are confined to their dorm rooms and apartments, except to get food, COVID-19 tests and exercise. More than 180 Duke students tested positive for COVID-19 in one week and another 200 are currently in quarantine, the largest numbers Duke has seen since the start of the pandemic.

“We haven’t been able to pinpoint a night, an event or a fraternity and say these people are responsible for the outbreak,” Durham Interfraternity Council President Will Santee said Monday. “It’s never that concrete.”

The fraternities planned to have a virtual recruitment process, but that didn’t happen.

Santee, a junior in Kappa Alpha, said he and fraternity chapter presidents can’t keep tabs on what’s happening at all times among members.

“Our goal was to not be a part of a COVID outbreak,” Santee said.

Now fraternity leaders are trying to work with university officials to prevent this from happening again, he said.

The fraternities disaffiliated from the university in February because Santee said they felt restricted by Duke changing rush rules and limiting campus housing designated for Greek Life to upperclassmen. Durham IFC continued plans to host rush this spring and include freshmen, with final bids sent out on March 3.

Unlike in the fall, first-year students were leaving their dorms to go to fraternity parties and events off-campus tied to rush.

“It was entirely avoidable,” Duke Vice President of Public Affairs Mike Schoenfeld said. “The guidance and the commitment that everybody at Duke made was to avoid unmasked gatherings and avoid any type of gatherings per the public health advice.”

There wasn’t one big party, Schoenfeld said. Instead, Duke’s targeted testing program and contact tracing found that a number of rush events were the source of many of positive tests.

In a statement, Durham IFC leaders said they are “disappointed that some individuals within fraternities violated the expectations we established for virtual recruitment.” Santee said fraternities are setting up a anonymous hotline for students to report things like parties they see on Snapchat. That information will be immediately shared with Duke and Durham officials, he said.

“We want to make sure there isn’t another outbreak,” Santee said. “We don’t want to be part of the problem.”

Duke is investigating the recent incidents, and students involved could face disciplinary action, including suspension.

Other universities, including UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, saw clusters of COVID-19 cases connected to fraternities and sororities last fall. Both universities were forced to move classes online and close dorms because of spikes at the beginning of the fall semester.

In contrast, Duke students were able to stay on campus and take in-person classes in the fall.

But this semester, Duke has threatened a tightening of campus restrictions multiple times as reported cases surpassed overall numbers from last fall. Saturday’s lockdown seems to be an attempt at hitting the reset button to get the spread under control rather than sending everybody home.

Though not much has changed in terms of policy at Duke since last fall, there are changes in behavior. People are “truly exhausted, and we know from experience all it takes is relaxing your guard just a little bit,” Schoenfeld said.

“While there is a material change and while vaccines are moving forward,” Schoenfeld said, “we do still have a pandemic and we have to be cautious about that.”

Students are getting tested multiple times per week, fewer students are living on campus and they all signed the Duke compact outlining campus rules about social distancing, face masks and gathering limits.

Gianna Affi, a junior and a student government leader, said she’s frustrated by students taking part in parties and rush events and acting like they don’t know what’s expected of them.

“It’s a blatant disregard of both Duke and Durham rules,” Affi said. “It unfairly jeopardizes the health of other Duke students, faculty and employees.”

A year into the pandemic, Affi said students are tired and antsy and may be taking advantage of loosening restrictions across the state and nation. North Carolina has lifted curfews, allowed bars to reopen and increased gathering limits.

With a light at the end of the tunnel and millions of Americans getting vaccinated, Affi said, “It’s extraordinarily unfair for people to feel tired of restrictions and act as they please when we all feel that way. Their decisions shouldn’t be at the expense of the Durham community.”

The stay-in-place order affects about 6,000 undergraduate students living in Durham. Nearly half of those students are living on campus, and it’s a mix of freshman to seniors.

Several other colleges and universities across the nation have used a “pause” like this to address a sudden outbreak on a campus, Schoenfeld said. The expectation is to flatten the curve.

Despite the recent spike, the numbers represent a relatively small percentage of the Duke population. The positive test rate is around 1%. Duke is conducting about 4,000 tests a day, which allows the university to identify and address clusters quickly.

“It’s unrealistic to expect that an institution or an entity with thousands of people coming in and out everyday would somehow be immune from the virus,” Schoenfeld said. “We don’t live in a bubble.”

The new restrictions will be in effect until March 21, but university and health officials will reevaluate on Thursday.