The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Had a Great Coronavirus Plan, but Students Partied On

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At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, more than 40,000 students take tests twice a week for the coronavirus. They cannot enter campus buildings unless an app vouches that their test has come back negative. Everyone has to wear masks.

This is one of the most comprehensive plans by a major college to keep the virus under control. University scientists developed a quick, inexpensive saliva test. Other researchers put together a detailed computer model that suggested these measures would work, and that in-person instruction could go forward this fall.

But the predictive model included an oversight: It assumed that all of the students would do all of the things that they were told to.

Enough students continued to go to parties even after testing positive, showing how even the best thought-out plans to keep college education moving can fail when humans do not heed common sense or the commands from public health officials.

Last week, the university reported an unexpected upswing of coronavirus cases and imposed a lockdown. Students had to stay in their dorms or off-campus housing except for essential activities, which included going to class.

Randall Munroe, the creator of the popular internet comic strip XKCD, and a contributor to The Times, poked fun at the fact that two of the people who were key players in developing the models were physicists.

“Can’t understand why someone with a physics degree would be bad at judging how often college students get invited to parties,” comments one of the XKCD characters.

Nigel Goldenfeld, one of the physicists who was the butt of the comic strip, replied in good humor. “We enjoyed the joke,” he said. But, he noted, it was not a completely accurate portrayal of what happened.

For one, while he and a fellow physicist, Sergei Maslov, had devoted