A Pyrrhic Victory?

A Yale University student voices her concerns about reopening campuses in the fall.

June 10, 2020
 
 
Istock.com/Anastasia trembach

An open letter to administrators planning for fall 2020:

I was among the thousands of students that my university asked not to return to the campus after spring break amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the spring semester has ended, I, like many students, have received a number of email updates from administrators regarding plans for the fall semester.

Those emails indicate that the university, like others I’ve heard or read about, would like to bring students back in person as much as possible and will turn to online classes only as a backup or last resort. But this approach is based on a faulty premise -- not all students want to return to campus under the circumstances they have proposed.

As much as everyone would love to return to campus life as it existed in January, that’s no longer an option. Bringing students back to campuses at any cost might achieve only a Pyrrhic victory for universities. Below I outline some questions about the proposed “hybrid” models of on-campus instruction.

Staying healthy. To be perfectly honest, I do not see how students can return to campuses without giving rise to a COVID-19 outbreak. There is no way to socially distance in a large, crowded lecture hall, so such classes either must have low enrollment caps or be taught online. Seminars, in theory, could be taught in a socially distanced setting, but professors can’t wear masks while teaching, and students will presumably remove theirs to speak.

Further, as these past few months have reminded us, college is about more than classroom instruction. How will dining halls, libraries and gyms be kept sanitized? Will students be expected to socially distance in extracurricular activities, study groups and while just hanging out? Anyone who has ever been a 20-year-old, particularly an intoxicated one, knows that is an unrealistic expectation. Social distancing will go out the window every Friday night. And 25-year-old grad students are not much more disciplined.

For the sake of argument, I’m willing to posit that social distancing is possible 24-7. That means no large in-person lectures, few extracurriculars, limited access to facilities and distanced social interaction. Why exactly are we being brought back to campus? Just to attend seminars?

Missing class. If I am exposed to an infected student, I will presumably have to quarantine from the time I am exposed until I get sick, recover and ultimately test negative. That could take six weeks! Will all of my classes be recorded? If not, how will I ever catch up? Alternatively, if I am able to remotely view an in-person class, that still won’t be adequate: online-only classes permit remote interaction, but in-person classes can turn remote students into passive viewers. Moreover, recent studies have shown that COVID disproportionately impacts people of color, which means that the disadvantages of missing class due to illness will not be evenly distributed across the student population.

To make matters worse, some colleges and universities have proposed shortening the semester to end before Thanksgiving, taking away all breaks. Will they extend reading periods to make up for the critical time that those students would otherwise have had to study?

Sick professors. What happens if my professor gets sick and has to take weeks off? Will another professor take over? If that happens near the end of the semester, which professor will design the exam? How can I quickly adjust a paper, written based on feedback from one professor, to the preferences of the professor who will actually grade it? Different professors teaching the same subject invariably have different approaches and expectations.

Sick students. Will infected undergraduates continue to live in dorms or be moved to some sort of infirmary? Will students receive medical care in the infirmary? Certainly someone will have to bring them food. Where will students merely exposed to COVID be asked to quarantine -- their dorms (sharing hall bathrooms and/or common spaces with healthy students), an infirmary (alongside infected students), or somewhere else (with other exposed students)?

What about graduate students and undergrads who live off campus? Will they be forced to quarantine with their sick roommates? If they are quarantined for multiple weeks, will someone bring them groceries?

Is the local hospital prepared for an influx of patients who will likely get sick all at once? Administrators may think this situation unlikely, but students want to be assured that the hospital system is ready. Many colleges and universities are located in college towns with only one small hospital.

Special circumstances. I am an only child, and my parents have health conditions that put them at a risk of getting very ill. Who is going to take care of them if I am at college? Not their siblings, who are also high risk, and not my grandparents, who are in their 80s. What happens to students who suffer from underlying medical conditions? What about graduate students and nontraditional undergrads who have children? What if elementary schools do not reopen in the fall or close midsemester? What if we see more young children develop COVID-related Kawasaki syndrome?

Worst-case scenario. The death rate for university-age students is estimated to be about 0.2 percent, and the hospitalization rate is estimated to be 2.5 percent. At a university like mine, with a student population of roughly 13,000, we risk having 325 students sick enough to be hospitalized and 26 students die in a worst-case-scenario outbreak. Our professors, though fewer in number, face even higher hospitalization and death rates.

Is this a price we’re willing to pay? If the decision were up to me, I would say no. If a vaccine or effective treatment were developed between now and January, such deaths would be entirely needless.

The online option. Colleges and universities underestimate students by assuming that we would all prefer to assume these risks rather than attend classes over Zoom. Holding online classes does not fix all of these problems, but at least it mitigates them. Students and professors are less likely to get sick. Sick and quarantined students can attend classes remotely as long as they feel well enough -- and they will be able to fully participate from a distance. Breaks could be permitted. We can take care of our families, and they can take care of us.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it shouldn’t be dismissed quite so quickly. Above all, please don’t ask us to return to campus until you are truly prepared to address these concerns.

Sincerely,

A Yale University student

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