The campus of The University of Chicago in Hyde Park. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

HYDE PARK — Dozens of undergraduate students at the University of Chicago have tested positive for coronavirus in the last few days, forcing undergrads to return to virtual learning and requiring students in dorms to stay home for at least a week, university officials said Thursday.

More than 50 students of the College, the university’s undergraduate body, have tested positive, dean of students Michele Rasmussen and associate vice president for safety and security Eric Heath said in a joint statement Thursday.

University officials are concerned the cases likely involve the the more contagious B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant. The number of people testing positive is expected to increase in the coming days, Rasmussen and Heath said.

“Those who have tested positive are in isolation, following University protocols,” the statement reads. “Many of these cases may have been connected to one or more parties held by off-campus fraternities over the last week.”

Classes in the College will be held entirely online for at least seven days starting Thursday. Graduate classes may continue to meet in-person as scheduled.

Many of the affected students live in on-campus residence halls, Rasmussen and Heath said. The university has enacted a stay-at-home order for all dorm residents effective through April 15.

Other precautions include an indefinite shift to takeout for all on-campus dining and the cancellation of all in-person programs for undergrads, including those held by student organizations, until the stay-at-home order is lifted.

Students who recently attended a party or a gathering without masks should immediately get tested, officials said.

“Additional steps may be needed if there is further spread of COVID-19, including placing further restrictions on in-person activities for Spring Quarter or scaling back planned College Convocation events,” Rasmussen and Heath said.

The recent outbreak is the university’s largest cluster of cases since the academic year began, officials said. About 920 cases have been reported on-campus since Sept. 18, according to the university’s coronavirus dashboard.

Rasmussen and Heath urged students, faculty and employees “to be vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, whether through the University’s dedicated vaccine clinic or through other providers.”

Many students have been ineligible for vaccinations to date, as the city’s current vaccination phase only covers essential workers and Chicagoans aged 16–64 who have underlying medical conditions.

The state is scheduled to expand eligibility to all Illinoisans 16 and up starting Monday, but that does not apply to Chicago. However, all Chicagoans 16 and older will be eligible to sign up for vaccine appointments in the suburbs beginning Monday, Gov. JB Pritzker announced.

“We’re at a point where the [coronavirus] variants are rising,” Pritzker said at a press conference Thursday. “They’re coming at the population so fast at every age. … We now need to get as many shots into arms as quickly as we possibly can.”

All residents 16 and older will be able to get the vaccine within the city proper starting April 19, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said this week.

Chicago is seeing nearly 600 new cases per day, and its positivity rate has risen to 5.1 percent — a sign the virus is spreading unchecked. Most new cases are being seen in people 18–39 years old.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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