After hundreds of Notre Dame students storm the field for football victory, school intensifies exit testing protocols ahead of Thanksgiving break

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Fireworks explode over Notre Dame Stadium before the game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium on November 7, 2020 in South Bend, Indiana. - Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images North America/TNS

In the week leading up to the showdown with the top-ranked Clemson football team, University of Notre Dame leaders urged students to stay vigilant against COVID-19 when the players faced off Saturday just outside of South Bend, Indiana.

More than 7,000 undergraduate students were required to take COVID-19 tests to enter the stadium. Emails from administrators reminded fans to keep festivities outdoors and limit gatherings to 10 as cases crept up among students and in the surrounding county.

But that didn’t stop about 2,000 students from spontaneously rushing the field when the Fighting Irish upset Clemson University in an upset win in double overtime, an image broadcast to millions of at-home viewers and shared across social media. The footage showed students crammed together, and while most seemed to be wearing face masks, some mouths and noses were exposed.

A day after the victory, Notre Dame officials expressed “disappointment” about several large off-campus gatherings on Friday and Saturday nights. The messages outlined stricter testing protocols for students who intend to leave campus for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and winter break but did not address the students who stormed the field.

“It was very disappointing to see evidence of widespread disregard of our health protocols at many gatherings over the weekend,” wrote the university president, the Rev. John Jenkins, in a message to students.

The critical words were directed at off-campus parties, some with groups of about 50 people, and not the short period of time when mostly masked students rushed the field, said university spokesman Paul Browne.

“Father John’s concern was the social gatherings, and not actually rushing the field,” Browne said. County health officials do not think the incident posed a high risk of transmission because of other precautions in place, he said.

About 11,000 people attended the game, the majority of whom were students, Browne said. The school capped attendance this season to 20% of the stadium’s 80,000 seats and curbed ticket sales. Students are given first priority for purchase.

Under the revised exit testing plans announced Sunday, all students intending to leave the South Bend area for Thanksgiving must take a COVID-19 test and cannot depart until the results are back, Jenkins’ note says. Those who leave without testing will not be able to register for classes next semester, receive a transcript or return for spring classes.

While the private Roman Catholic university had already announced some exit testing protocols, administrators made the policy stricter due to student conduct over the weekend, threatening to place a registration hold on students who don’t test. Jenkins also warned of “severe sanctions” for those holding large gatherings or flouting public health guidelines.

In an email to the faculty on Sunday, Notre Dame Provost Marie Lynn Miranda and Executive Vice President Shannon Cullinan said the school sought to test all undergraduate students before Saturday’s game, excluding those who’d had COVID-19 in the past 90 days, athletes who are subject to frequent testing and students working remotely. About 98% of 7,173 students identified were tested before the game, the email said. Those who didn’t test had their tickets deactivated.

The officials also acknowledged a rise in campus cases over the last week. About 114 of 186 new cases were identified through surveillance testing of asymptomatic individuals, the email said. Cases could be up because of greater rates in St. Joseph County, leading to increased community transmission, relaxing attitudes about the virus and more surveillance testing, the email said.

“Because we are seeing increased cases among first year students, we ask those of you teaching our first years to talk frankly with them about the importance of adhering to the protocols,” the message says. “This is a moment for us to teach and our students to learn about the responsibilities that accompany being part of a community.”

As of Monday, Notre Dame had 221 active COVID-19 cases and a seven-day positivity rate of 5.2%, according to the school’s public dashboard.

Notre Dame’s in-person classes conclude this week, with finals following, and dorms close for Thanksgiving and winter break Nov. 21. The university was among one of the most aggressive in pushing to offer face-to-face instruction this fall but the endeavor hasn’t always been smooth.

The school suspended in-person instruction for two weeks in August after a case surge driven by off-campus gatherings. Jenkins has also come under fire for his conduct, most notably for posing with students in a crowded group photo and for attending the White House ceremony in which Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jenkins became one of the event’s many attendees who later tested positive for COVID-19. He has recovered and apologized for not wearing a mask and shaking hands with others during the event.

Notre Dame has one more scheduled home game, against Syracuse University on Dec. 5. Browne said the school discourages rushing the field and that the athletics department is considering how to address it.

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