Colleges say campuses can reopen safely. Students and faculty aren’t convinced.

Colleges say campuses can reopen safely. Students and faculty aren’t convinced.

Campuses plan to open with widespread testing, socially distanced classrooms, and mandated masks, but will that be enough to curb an outbreak?

As colleges across the United States slowly unveil campus reopening plans, I keep thinking of something Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University and co-host of the Pivot podcast, told New York magazine in May: “At universities, we’re having constant meetings, and we’ve all adopted this narrative of ‘This is unprecedented, and we’re in this together,’ which is Latin for ‘We’re not lowering our prices, bitches.’”

Galloway’s statement might come off as crass to those unfamiliar with the financial model of most American colleges. But there’s a stark element of truth to it: Many institutions, particularly smaller schools that are dependent on tuition to survive, are wary of the possibility of low enrollment numbers and declining revenue if online classes continue into the fall.

While some undergraduates have expressed reservations about paying full tuition for remote learning, many students (both undergraduate and graduate alike), staff, and faculty are unconvinced that reopening for the fall will be the best course of action. Universities across the country are being asked to weigh the public health of their community against their bottom line; yet, many administrators appear to be hoping — or in some cases, actively planning — for a return to a new normalcy.

In late May, the president of the University of Notre Dame published an opinion piece in the New York Times with the headline, “We’re reopening Notre Dame. It’s worth the risk.” To be clear, Rev. John Jenkins is not calling for a reopening without any safety measures; he argues that already, people regularly take on and impose risks “for the good of society.” With careful planning backed by scientific research, Jenkins believes that “the good of educating students and continuing vital research is very much worth the remaining risk.”

As of June 24, the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking more than 1,000 campus reopening plans, reported that 63 percent of colleges will offer an in-person semester, 17 percent will operate under a hybrid model, and only 8 percent will commit to remote learning. (About 7 percent are considering a “range of scenarios,” while the other 5 percent are still waiting to decide.)

Colleges preparing to welcome students to campus have outlined preventive measures like socially distanced classrooms, increased cleaning, mandated face masks, fever checkpoints, and dormitory-turned-quarantine facilities in case of an outbreak. Most campuses are emphasizing coronavirus testing and contact tracing, and some have revised the academic calendar to have fewer breaks and end the semester by Thanksgiving.

These campus preparations are slated to cost millions of dollars for schools, most of which are struggling with reduced budgets, the Wall Street Journal reported. And as the pandemic continues to run its course, students and faculty are pushing for transparency in administrative decisions and voicing concerns about health care, fair pay, and policy enforcement as schools refine their fall plans.

“What we’re seeing is a chaotic, state-by-state patchwork of various options,” Jelena Subotic, a professor of political science at Georgia State University, told me. “Universities are really in a bind. They know that students prefer the in-person experience, but by pushing that side of the argument, it’ll be hard to maintain a lot of the safety precautions because, as a country, we’ve kind of abandoned the pursuit of mitigation.”

States like Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas are currently seeing a surge in cases — months after places like New York, New Jersey, and Illinois have peaked and witnessed a decline. Universities have to weigh those uncertainties, but statewide decisions can also be driven by political pressure.

Georgia State, which is part of the state’s system of public universities, is following policies issued by the state of Georgia. Because Georgia only recommends — and not requires — masks in public, there’s no strict mandate to wear a face covering or mask in the classroom, Subotic said. Hundreds of people have signed an online petition asking the University System of Georgia to revise its policies, but public universities may have far less flexibility, compared to their private counterparts, when it comes to complying with state policy.

Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education, predicted in the Chronicle that a “similar game of follow-the-leader” — akin to the wave of sudden campus closures in March — will occur as the fall semester nears at both public and private schools, driven by the decisions from prestigious colleges who’ve opted to revert course and stay online due to public health concerns. But already, health experts worry that a second round of lockdowns might not be as effective.

“I know that if we are back on campus, no one will obey social distancing,” said Olivia, an incoming senior at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, who asked to be referred to by her first name out of privacy concerns. “The student body is overwhelmingly conservative and the faculty seem to be more conservative than most universities.” This leads her to believe that many of her peers might refuse to wear a mask or comply with social distancing — a worrisome reality since she has pre-existing health conditions that make her more vulnerable to the virus.

It’s likely that students, regardless of their political beliefs, aren’t going to play it safe when campuses reopen, despite colleges’ best efforts to squelch social activities. Young people in their early 20s are more likely to engage in risk-seeking behavior, and the close-knit reality of residential life encourages that.

“I know that parties would still happen, regardless of whatever measures the school takes to try and discourage them,” Olivia told me. While she wanted to spend a part of her senior year on campus, she said she’d prefer an online option if it meant reducing the virus’s spread, especially to the Lexington community that has a high population of elderly residents. Universities operate like small individual towns, and often have centralized health care systems for students and faculty.

“If there is a sizable outbreak, I don’t trust the existing health systems to adequately handle it,” Olivia said. “I’ve had the worst medical treatment of my life by far in Lexington, mainly from our health center on campus.”

Campus reopenings will likely exacerbate existing issues within a school’s infrastructure. Colleges have struggled for years to meet students’ counseling needs, and health center staff will likely be stretched thin, with increased testing and an influx of sick people if an outbreak occurs.

To reduce density and limit the number of people on campus, some universities are pursuing a hybrid model comprising in-person and online courses. Still, this balancing act could come at the expense of instructors and staff. Graduate students, adjuncts, and professors could still be expected to teach in person, while increasing their workload by juggling on-campus and online courses. Campus janitors might have to clean more frequently and intensely, and food service workers could be tasked with modifying how they prepare meals.

“All this added labor doesn’t seem to have an added value or a better salary, when considering hazard pay,” said Guillermo Caballero, a doctoral candidate in political science at Purdue University and member of the graduate student advocacy group GROW. “If you’re asking us to increase workload, to do both in-person and online, it isn’t easy.”

Instructors’ top-of-mind concerns are related to in-person teaching: Many worry about the potential of contracting a serious case of Covid-19, and there’s a lack of clarity around who gets to be exempted. Not only that, the onus to enforce public health policies, like mask-wearing or social distancing, usually falls on the instructor.

“Right now, students can choose not to attend, but faculty and graduate students are required to teach,” Subotic said, adding that budget cuts have significantly reduced Georgia State’s adjunct workforce. “For us to be exempt, we have to show our human resources department that we’re high risk. But even if I live with somebody at home who is high risk, that doesn’t constitute an exemption.”

Some colleges appear to be pushing instructors to take a leave of absence if they’re uncomfortable with returning to campus, and the ability to teach remotely varies by institution. Jason Helms, an associate professor of English at Texas Christian University, recently went viral on Twitter after posting about how his request to teach remotely was denied. Helms, a tenured professor, has a young daughter with a heart condition at home, and thought he would be able to work remotely under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (The school suggested he take a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act.) After significant pushback from faculty, however, the university announced on June 25 that all instructors, including contingent faculty and graduate students, will have the option to teach online.

A university’s workforce doesn’t solely consist of tenured professors, whose jobs are more secure. Adjuncts and graduate students tend to be more financially vulnerable, and work with significantly less labor protections. Boston University sent out an email on mid-June to doctoral students (who have teaching responsibilities) informing them that, while on leave of absence, the university will not cover medical insurance or provide stipend support.

The university recently updated its policy, which will cover tuition and health insurance for doctoral students who enroll in the school’s remote learning program, but excludes teaching stipends. “Generally speaking, we expect PhD students to be on campus to receive stipends,” a university spokesperson told me via email. “For a PhD student who cannot return to campus in the fall and who believes they can effectively do service work off campus, they may contact their program director of director of graduate studies to discuss what options are available.”

Caroline Bayne, a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, said the in-person teaching precautions appeared to be “designed by people who haven’t spent much time in a classroom.” The university is requiring students to physically distance, increasing cleaning, mandating mask wearing, and possibly extending hours of class operations into the weekend to decrease capacity.

Bayne, who teaches in the department of communication studies, told me that young, non-tenured instructors already work hard to maintain authority and space in class, on top of teaching about subjects like race, gender, and sexuality that can open them to critique from students. Plus, some classrooms are small and difficult to move around in.

“We aren’t trained in dealing with crises in the classroom,” she said. “It seems incredibly unrealistic to suggest these Covid-19-related precautions are feasible solutions when our classrooms are already deficient in so many ways irrespective of the virus.”

At Purdue University, graduate students in the advocacy group GROW say that while the college’s “soft opening” is slated to start in July, they feel unprepared and unconfident in the plans set forth. According to a survey by Purdue’s faculty-led University Senate, more than half of faculty, staff, and graduate students said they feel unsafe returning to campus by August for the fall.

“We don’t have a clear picture of what it will look like, or even how unique courses, like labs or fieldwork, will be like in terms of safety measures,” said David Savage, a doctoral student in the department of forestry and natural resources. “The university is saying a lot of words, but not conveying a lot of information.”

Universities are also not insulated from the local communities they’re a part of. Depending on the size of the school, a campus can occupy a significant part of the landscape, and residents and businesses of these towns and cities are accustomed to the wave of students that come and go every year. This fall, however, their arrival carries new risk, with the possibility of an overburdened health care system in case of an outbreak.

In Cornell University’s detailed 97-page reopening report, the school acknowledged that it is “inevitable” returning students, faculty, or staff will be carrying the virus. “Our overall goal is to implement approaches to campus re-activation that will mitigate the burden of infection and severity of disease, while minimizing disruption to normal campus life to the greatest extent possible,” the report concluded.

Many campuses like Cornell are counting on these mitigation strategies to reduce harm. Harm, then, appears to be a trade-off in the pursuit of reopening. The coronavirus has already shown that it disproportionately takes the lives of Black Americans and impacts low-income neighborhoods. It’s not exactly clear whether the sentiment of “We’re all in this together,” as Galloway mentioned in his New York magazine interview, applies — to surrounding communities, instructors, or even students, especially if most plans fail to address worst-case scenarios.

“It’s concerning,” said Savage, the Purdue doctoral student. “There’s no consideration of what a failure state would look like in the fall.”

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