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As federal and state governments begin to take steps toward “reopening” the economy, universities find themselves increasingly pressed to move ahead with plans for in-person instruction in the fall. By now, most will have read this opinion piece by the president of Brown University urging a fall reopening provided that certain conditions are satisfied, including testing, contact tracing and supportive quarantine of those who test positive for COVID-19.
Many universities are now considering several modes of instruction for the fall, including either a full return to on-campus teaching or some hybrid option with reduced class sizes and online lecture delivery. Other institutions have announced their intention to resume campus life as usual. So far, in the United States the California State system is the most prominent institution that has made the decision to move fall classes online.
We are willing to give universities the benefit of the doubt that their plans to reopen do not reflect the cynical calculation that a significant loss of life among faculty, staff and students is an acceptable cost of doing business. Nevertheless, we believe the intention to return to in-person instruction is motivated by a misreading of the scientific probabilities, as well as a flawed balancing of interests that improperly weights economic harms and optimal teaching environments over systematic health impacts on the university community. These errors will impede the transition to a safe and fiscally responsible digital space once the full weight of the pandemic comes disturbingly into view.
Simply put, and as others have similarly argued, many universities are not facing the biological and moral reality of this once-in-a-century pandemic, nor are they recognizing the limits of our current medical technology and political institutions to address the challenges we face. Magical thinking rarely gives rise to ethically sound or prudent policy.
The Rugged Epidemiological Terrain
There are only two ways to achieve a robust university reopening without incurring a morally unacceptable loss of life or irreparably damaging the health of employees or their families. The first is a safe and effective vaccine. If one can indeed be developed -- and this is far from a foregone conclusion -- it will not be available in the fall nor, most likely, even by the spring. The optimistic, maximally expedited timeline for vaccine development is usually 12 to 18 months, to say nothing of its large-scale production and global distribution. Even if the efforts to develop and distribute a vaccine are successful, it may only provide partial immunity for a single season, as with the flu vaccine.
The only way to achieve herd immunity absent a vaccine is to allow the infection to spread to nearly 70 percent of the population, which may not be achievable with this virus and, in any case, would be ethically impermissible given that other effective means of suppression (such as social distancing) are available. Neither is it reasonable to presume that a safe and effective treatment option will be widely accessible by the fall. Even if it were, it would do nothing to limit the spread of the disease and would raise moral hazard concerns that treatments might be used as a license to expose university employees and students to the ravages of the virus. By analogy: the fact that there are effective treatments for AIDS does not undercut the urgent need to prevent HIV infections on campus.
No leading epidemiologist thinks the pathogen will simply disappear or return to low seasonal levels, and the virus is slated to interact with flu in the fall and winter to once again overwhelm our health-care institutions, perhaps to a more devastating effect. Many in the academy fail to appreciate not only the physical but also the temporal scale of this pandemic: it is a battle that will be waged not merely over the next few weeks or months but probably for the next two years and possibly beyond. We may climb over the peak of some foothills this summer, as death rates and new infections drop thanks to social distancing measures, but the mountain looms not far beyond. Aspirational thinking is dangerous when navigating this sort of epidemiological terrain. What we need is long-term route planning and the sober determination to scale what lies ahead.
Testing, Tracing and Quarantining on Campuses Will Not Work
In the absence of herd immunity, the only morally acceptable way to reopen universities would be to systematically test, trace and quarantine. Because this virus is being spread in large part by people without visible symptoms, and because its physical and phenomenological effects vary wildly, limiting testing to those with fevers or other signs of illness will contribute to a false sense of security and, more important, will not stop the spread of the disease on campuses. As a result, everyone who comes to a campus must be tested with some frequency, and the contacts of those who test positive must be traced and tested or quarantined.
Given the well-documented national shortages of testing capacity, tracing teams and personal protective equipment, meeting these ethical conditions in the university setting is a tall order, to say the least. Imagine the disruption of but a single case: one COVID-positive student would initiate the quarantine of every student, faculty and staff member that the student came into contact with over a period of two weeks, as well as the people with whom those individuals interacted. Even if the student did not actually infect anybody else, hundreds of students and dozens of faculty and staff would be forced to self-quarantine and their classes and work moved online midstride.
The Moral Magnitude of the Moment
In abstract discussions of statistical curves, it is easy to gloss over the moral magnitude of this ongoing pandemic. Reported coronavirus deaths in the United States are about to reach the grim milestone of 100,000, which may be a significant undercount. In about three months, COVID-19 has killed nearly twice as many Americans as the nation lost in its 20-year war in Vietnam and nearly as many as were killed in World War I, with many daily death tolls surpassing the horrific loss of life on 9-11.
Crucially, the expected peak for America is only where it is now because of robust social distancing efforts that have temporarily reduced infection rates and prevented emergency room capacities from being overrun. These social distancing policies are rapidly being reversed in an infection environment that does not come anywhere close to meeting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on the reopening of America, guidelines that the current administration has attempted to bury.
Moreover, flattening the curve only prevents additional deaths that would result from our health-care system being overwhelmed; a flat curve does not mean it is safe to reopen without effective precautions. We cannot, therefore, look at declining rates of death and infection over the summer, if these trends do occur, as a reason to open back up without keeping drastic social distancing measures in place. And such conditions are patently impossible for large lecture classes, packed hallways and crammed public transportation, to say nothing of dormitories, dining halls and after-school parties.
Universities with large student populations and capacious class enrollments are essentially cruise ships on steroids, as far as an acute respiratory pathogen like the new coronavirus is concerned. The idea of sending faculty members outfitted in makeshift PPE into crowded lecture halls and small seminar rooms with coughing students is frankly unconscionable. The virus is poised to tear through our student and faculty bodies just as it is now ravaging nursing homes, prisons and meatpacking plants. But unlike cruise ships, nursing homes, food services and prisons, universities can operate remotely with only minimal disruption to their mission.
Lessons From the Climate Crisis
Regrettably, universities cannot look to our current federal government for proper guidance on reopening, given the unprecedented politicization of science by the current administration and the epistemic gutting of our federal institutions including the coronavirus task force, CDC, FDA, FEMA and the like. These agencies have relied selectively on overly optimistic epidemiological models in order to calm markets and encourage many businesses to reopen sooner than they otherwise would -- considerations that should not factor into universities’ decision making.
Following the CDC’s lagging efforts to update its characterization of the virus, some universities continue to operate according to an outdated picture of the disease: e.g., that COVID-19 is like the flu, that the majority of those infected experience only mild symptoms, that otherwise healthy young people and children are unharmed, that only the lungs are affected, and that the disease is reliably symptomatic. Many of these same characterizations are currently being pedaled by neo-Confederate quarantine protesters, antivaxxers, climate change deniers and others who aim to distort public perceptions of the pandemic and erode the epistemic authority of medical science.
Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic is a complex global problem that requires swift and coordinated action at all levels of society. And like climate change, acting to stop the spread of the pandemic carries heavy economic costs and personal sacrifices -- an “inconvenient truth” that may partially explain the rise of denialism and wishful thinking. In the case of universities, those costs might include lost tuition and student housing revenue, delays in construction projects, reduction in salaries, the elimination of matching retirement contributions, hiring freezes, and even furloughs of staff and faculty.
But the true costs -- both material and moral -- will be far greater if we continue on the current trajectory. Indeed, it is the false forced choice between the economy and health that has been used to foment COVID denial. Universities have seen through these tactics before as they have taken the lead on climate science and policy; we should be on the right side of the pandemic response, as well.
The Value of a Life
We recognize that the value of human life is not absolute and that risk must always be managed in public policy. However, a return to academic life as normal can only be morally justified if the amount of death and suffering likely to ensue is outweighed by even greater harms. Whether staff furloughs, salary reductions or other negative financial impacts can be cast in such weighty moral terms is a case that universities need to make. Instead of making this moral case, some colleges have quietly begun to seek immunity from lawsuits in the event that members of the community fall ill or die.
Universities will be better positioned for the fall if they avoid undue optimism and focus instead on increasing their competitiveness in the challenging digital environment to come. This is not a time for motivated reasoning in the service of enrollments, endowments or even optimal pedagogy. We too would like to teach in person. But we would rather live to teach another day.