Plans for Reopening Colleges and Universities

Many colleges and universities are announcing their plans to resume in-person instruction this fall in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some schools are already beginning with online classes, two-thirds of colleges are planning on having students back on campus. These announcements of returning to campus are coupled with detailed plans on reducing the spread of the virus through measures like requiring masks, having one-way hallways, and isolating students exposed to the virus. Schools hope that these measures will control and contain any possible outbreaks. Schools, however, are not equipped to handle the dangers of returning to in-person instruction. Although not ideal, the benefits of remote learning far outweigh the risks of reopening or hybrid learning.

Why Are School Not Ready to Reopen?

It is clear that there is no way for schools to reopen safely because “covid-19 transmission will be unmanageably and unavoidably high”. The common expectations of “sanitation, masks, and physical distancing” have been deemed inadequate for the types of set ups at colleges and universities. Evidence suggests that the constant circulation of the same air in classrooms and common spaces basically renders mask wearing and physical distancing useless.

Even if certain situations, like classrooms and dining halls, can be managed—and that is still a big if—there are countless number of other spaces that pose a challenge. From shared dorm bathrooms, to study spaces and parties, there are locations and situations that would be difficult, if not impossible, for schools to control and ensure are safe. Additionally, students are known to frequent trips to bars, which have already been hotspots across the country.

Another consideration is the dependence of this set up on students’ honesty and the schools’ ability to enforce these measures. Surveys have already shown the high likelihood that students will not report symptoms. Similarly, there is doubt that students will abide by rules like mask-wearing unless it is enforced, which is another daunting challenge for schools. A lot of these safety measures imposed by the school, like wearing a mask, depend on students abiding by these rules. This is too much responsibility being put on characteristically reckless and daring students to protect themselves and those around them.

One component of returning to campus is testing, which would need to be done frequently and in conjunction with contacting testing to be most effective. One challenge is that most tests will still require days to get results, meaning that during these days, anyone who has COVID-19 will be spreading it. Additionally, many schools do not have the capacity or sometimes jurisdiction to do frequent widespread testing and enforce contact tracing in an effective manner.  The fear is that once the virus reaches campus, it will spread so quickly that even the safety measures put in place will be inadequate in stopping its spread, which is very likely. Additionally, a school would require ample capacity to separately house students who have been diagnosed with COVID to stop the spread. It is impossible to predict how many students will require this housing at any given time; therefore, it is possible that colleges and universities will be overrun with too many COVID-positive students. This would be dangerous for students already COVID-positive and those who do not have it.

What Are the Risks Of Reopening?

One large assumption that colleges and universities are making is that their generally younger population offers some sort of protection from how bad COVID-19 can be. Just because younger populations may be less likely to die from COVID-19 does not mean there is reason to reopen schools. Firstly, a reduced fatality rate means that young people can still die, and many already have. Secondly, this idea also forgets about people more at risk of COVID-19’s fatality: students with other health conditions, older personnel on campus such as professors and workers, and racial minorities. This jeopardizes the health and safety of the workers on campuses and by extension, the surrounding community. Many of these service and maintenance staff are people of color, making them even more vulnerable to dying from COVID-19. Furthermore, many of these workers commute from their local communities to campus, making them not only more susceptible to catching the virus, but also to spreading it in the school and their communities. Even if provided with protective equipment while at work, it is not possible to control workers’ actions and behavior while not on campus. Students who commute to campus from all over also pose the same threat. These risks should make it clear that reopening colleges and universities puts everyone, on and off campus, at risk. Additionally, as more information comes out about COVID-19, longer lasting effects like “heart, kidney, and neurological problems” are concerning for everyone who catches the virus and survives.

Reasons the Hybrid Model Is Also Insufficient

Some arguments have been made in favor of a “hybrid-model”. This format would allow for a rotating system of in-person and online classes with the hopes of decreasing density and exposure. The perceived benefit of this option is that it is in-between the two extremes of a complete return to normal on-campus classes and remote online learning. The problem is that the benefits to the hybrid model are small, especially when considering that it is no less risky. All the same challenges of returning to campus and in-person classes apply to this option. Due to these reasons, the hybrid model should be grouped together with the complete return to in-person learning model as too dangerous.

Reasons Why Remote Learning Is Best

Everyone can agree that the ideal is to return to in-person instruction for colleges and universities. This allows students to socialize, get the best education, and experience residential college and university life. It is clear, however, that a return to in-person instruction this fall, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is unsafe and illogical. Not only is it dangerous, but all arguments in favor of reopening are founded on the hopes that students will return to some sort of normalcy. Students’ social lives, if following state and institutional protocol, would suffer because congregations of people put everyone at risk. Students’ educational experience would also still suffer with the obstacles of socially distancing, mask wearing, and the constant fear of catching the virus in the classroom, possibly more so than online learning. And finally, the residential experience of a college or university would be unrecognizably different. Socializing in the dining halls, school spirit events, sports, clubs, and other activities will no longer happen. If all these experiences are to be compromised and returning to school jeopardizes many peoples’ health and safety, there is no reason to return to any form of in-person instruction.

It should be federally mandated that no schools should be allowed to return to in-person instruction. This would make sure that all schools remain safely closed, which would also ensure equality in the educational system. It would be unfair for some schools to make the difficult decision to pursue online instruction while other schools are allowed to open simply because they are more financially equipped to do so or are more comfortable risking the safety of their students. There is still time for schools to recognize that returning to campus is a dangerous and unnecessary risk. Unfortunately, every day counts, and days are numbered until students return to campus.