How Many People Will Preventably Die or Get Ill if Universities Hold Classes in Person? – Part 1

This fall, American universities will face their modern rendezvous with destiny as they make momentous decisions whether to protect large communities from death and disease.  Most universities plan to conduct in-person classes and are likely to become semester-long virus incubators if they stick to those plans.

The situation would be very different if all government leaders in the US took diligent action to stamp out the virus and virtually all citizens acted responsibly to protect people they come in contact with.

But, sadly, that’s not the case.  Here’s a headline in today’s paper:  “7-Day Average Case Total in U.S. Sets Record for 27th Straight Day.  Local officials issued dire warnings about the spread of infections, blaming outbreaks on early reopenings and saying the virus was rapidly outpacing containment efforts.”

Foreseeable Dangers
Consider the following scenarios described by Kevin Gannon, a history professor at Grand View University and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, in a post worth reading, “The Summer of Magical Thinking.”  He writes that administrators are treating faculty and staff as “cannon fodder.”

So…what’s your college or university doing about the fall semester?

According to the aggregate results for over 1,000 higher-ed institutions aggregated by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the most likely answer is “planning for in-person” instruction—61% of the colleges and universities in this dataset have said this is their plan.  The next most prevalent answer is some sort of hybrid model (20% of the institutions), with only 8% “planning for online” (one has to assume that a large portion of this group is the Cal and Cal State systems), and a mere 3.7% who have yet to decide.  What strikes me about this data is that out of over 1,000 institutions of higher learning, over eight hundred of them are planning on at least some degree of face-to-face instruction, with three-quarters of that cohort proceeding as if that will be the dominant mode for the fall semester.  Business as usual, apparently.

. . .

What are you going to do when folks don’t adhere to those community expectations?  What happens if a student comes to class without a mask and the instructor is immuno-compromised, so they ask that student to mask up or leave?  Who is responsible for wiping down tables and chairs between classes?  Do you really think social distancing will happen in building hallways and common spaces between classes?  What if a student tests positive for the virus, and one of their instructors decides they need to go into quarantine because of a family member’s health status?  Are you going to make your employees divulge personal health information whenever something like this happens?  What if you have a student who thinks masks are political discrimination and their parents back up their refusal to wear a mask on campus?  What if one of your instructors gets ill?  Who takes over the class?  How is that determined?  Should faculty have a “Covid Buddy” just in case?  How are you going to avoid getting sued? Even if you have people sign waivers (HA!), doesn’t the very act of seeking that release of liability serve as evidence you’re aware of the risks involved?  Has anybody involved community leaders in their strategizing about the fall semester?  Colleges and universities exist in larger communities, and the residents of these locales are going to be significantly affected by your institution’s choices; what are you telling them about how you’re trying to ensure their safety?

. . .

Faculty and staff can interact with literally hundreds of different students per day.  How is the institution making things safe for them?  What plans are in place for locations like the Business Office, Bookstore, Registrar, and Financial Aid, that are often overcrowded in normal times?

. . .

If you are an upper-level college or university administrator, you are most likely wealthy and white.  This pandemic is disproportionately affecting people who are not wealthy and not white.

. . .

Let me pose another question: if your re-opening plan was an experiment, would your institution’s IRB approve it?

. . .

That’s the hard conversation we need to have, and it’s one largely absent from the panglossian statements about how awesome we’ll be able to keep things this fall.  Yes, the financial stakes for our institutions are high.  Yes, this is existential for some of us.  Yes, remote instruction can impact enrollment.  All these are bad.  You know what else is bad?  Dead Students.  Dead Faculty.  Dead Staff.

Problems of protecting people on campus pale by comparison to predictable problems off campus.  Consider this headline and imagine what will happen this fall in campuses all around the country:  “Covid-19 Outbreak Reported in 15 Fraternity Houses at University of Washington.

How can universities credibly expect to limit the spread of the virus in fraternities, sororities, dorms, other student housing, bars, and all the parties that inevitably will take place?  Will students meeting new people in class and at parties forego having sex with strangers?  If not, how many students will wear masks and stay at least six feet apart when they do so?

Read this compelling moral argument by Michael J. Sorrell, the President of Paul Quinn College:  “Colleges Are Deluding Themselves.  Institutions are letting their financial and reputational worries cloud their judgment about when they can safely reopen.”

If there are major spikes of illness and death in university communities during the fall, presumably they will abruptly shift to online instruction as everyone did in the spring.  The universities’ financial and political interests that they are trying to protect will be harmed much more than if they plan for online instruction from the outset.  Universities holding classes in person will undertake risks of huge liability exposure.  And they will have caused countless preventable illnesses and deaths.

Some Faculty Pushback
The New York Times recently published this article:  “A Problem for College in the Fall: Reluctant Professors.  Most universities plan to bring students back to campus.  But many of their teachers are scared to join them.”  I recommend reading the entire article (as well as the Esquire article linked below).  Here are some key excerpts.

More than three-quarters of colleges and universities have decided students can return to campus this fall.  But they face a growing faculty revolt.

“Until there’s a vaccine, I’m not setting foot on campus,” said Dana Ward, 70, an emeritus professor of political studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., who teaches a class in anarchist history and thought.  “Going into the classroom is like playing Russian roulette.”

. . .

Faculty members at institutions including Penn State, the University of Illinois, Notre Dame and the State University of New York have signed petitions complaining that they are not being consulted and are being pushed back into classrooms too fast.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus is known for its lively social scene, says a faculty petition.  To expect more than 50,000 students to behave according to public health guidelines, it goes on, “would be to ignore reality.”

At Penn State, an open letter signed by more than 1,000 faculty members demands that the university “affirm the autonomy of instructors in deciding whether to teach classes, attend meetings and hold office hours remotely, in person or in some hybrid mode.”  The letter also asks for faculty members to be able to change their mode of teaching at any time, and not to be obligated to disclose personal health information as a condition of teaching online.

“I shudder at the prospect of teaching in a room filled with asymptomatic superspreaders,” wrote Paul M. Kellermann, 62, an English professor at Penn State, in an essay for Esquire magazine, proclaiming that “1,000 of my colleagues agree.”  Those colleagues have demanded that the university give them a choice of doing their jobs online or in person.

[C]ampuses are not fortresses, and professors in states that have seen recent spikes in coronavirus infections are particularly worried.  Hundreds of cases have been linked to universities in Southern states in recent days, including clusters among the football teams at Clemson, Auburn and Texas Tech, and outbreaks tied to fraternity rush parties in Mississippi and to the Tigerland nightlife district near the Louisiana State campus.

Last week, I sent this email to my university president urging the university to offer all classes online this fall.  He sent a very prompt, courteous reply saying that they considered all the risks I mentioned and that they would rely on “the advice of medical professionals and public health specialists to monitor the situation should we need to go online.”

In response, I asked if they set criteria for deciding to go online.  I asked how many people will have to get sick or die before the University would change course, and (not surprisingly) he didn’t specify, saying only that he would rely on expert advice and his administrative experience.

What Are You Going to Do About This?

I keep thinking about the famous (gender-neutralized) quote of John Kerry, asking about the American War in Viet Nam, “How do you ask a person to be the last person to die for a mistake?”

In these dysfunctional times, mobs of people threaten public officials when the protesters feel aggrieved by the loss of freedom to spread deadly disease.  All the while, relatively few people protest the pollution of our environment with invisible killers floating in the air we breathe.

What is your school planning for the fall?  Have faculty and community leaders been involved in the planning?  What do you plan to do about your situation?

Click here for part 2 of this series.

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