By mid-June, the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities in the United States had announced that they planned to have their students return to campus for the fall semester. But college presidents, boards of trustees and legal teams continue to analyze, measure and wrestle with the dozens of variables that could impact or impede an on-campus term.
Any realistic administrator would have to agree that, to have a chance of success, the on-campus experience can happen only when all the stars (infrared thermometers, accurate and plentiful COVID-19 tests, isolation dorms) and planets (hand sanitizer, PPE, face masks, social distancing) align perfectly.
But many factors -- or what I call deal breakers -- could block a return to campus. Those deal breakers will vary by state, campus and institutional leadership, yet we should be aware that they could certainly be a possibility. Let’s list some of them, recognizing that the following events are by no means all the ones that could derail a return to campus.
- A severe outbreak occurs, and local hospitals reach or exceed capacity. That’s the case right now in Miami, Phoenix, Houston, Los Angeles and several other American cities. To many students, parents, faculty, university workers and local health officials, it might well appear irresponsible to bring thousands of students back to those areas, endangering them and further taxing health services’ capacity to react.
- The state governor forbids or strongly recommends against students returning to campus. The phased reopening of activities in a number of states just took a setback, with restrictions re-imposed.
- National organizations speak out against reopening. The American Council on Education, American Association of University Professors or another prominent association strongly recommends against on-campus instruction.
- Faculty members broadly refuse to teach face-to face out of health concerns. The university Faculty Senate votes overwhelmingly to resist or reject attempts to open the campus.
We should also recognize other factors, or what I call circuit breakers, that could strongly incline an institution to move to online instruction, even while not forcing it to do so.
- The college has to quarantine hundreds of students as soon as they arrive on campus. Visitors coming into New York, New Jersey or Connecticut from any of 22 other states are currently required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Will a Rutgers University, a Yale University or a New York University flout that requirement, or will those students occupy the lion’s share of the beds in the isolation dorm? If there is an isolation dorm.
- Five percent of students test positive on move-in weekend. Many colleges and universities promise quarantine quarters, but 5 percent of 10,000 is 500 students. Will the institution be able to isolate all of them in single rooms? Trace all their contacts during the few hours they have been on campus before testing? (“Oh my God! Look at you!” Hug, hug, air kiss.) Isolate those contacts, as well?
- Local schools remain closed. This will put immense pressure on many college and university faculty and staff members who simply will not be able to juggle on-campus and at-home duties.
- Students, parents, faculty members or another affected group seeks an injunction, and a judge rules that no one should be obliged to study or work on campus.
- The state declares masks optional or even masks illegal. Or perhaps forbids any organization or business to require the use of face masks.
Colleges and universities might also have to deal with some sticking points that could ultimately affect their decisions. For instance, 10 top administrators could put themselves through Cait Kirby's simulation of life on campus in the coronavirus era. They might rethink their “Welcome Home” stance.
Or they could actually try on the student experience. Twenty full professors and 20 top administrators could gather in a lecture hall that seats 160. Everyone could separate by six feet, be required to wear masks and then follow a lecture and pop quiz by the college president (also wearing a mask) from behind a Plexiglas shield. Again, they might change their minds about reopening.
Or move-in weekend exuberance could throw all planning into a cocked hat. Forget the spreader trips to South Padre Island, Los Cabos and Florida beaches -- a COVID-19 party may be coming to a campus near you.
The bottom line: in these times of near-total uncertainty, we should remember the difference between an investor and a speculator. The investor looks at history, studies patterns, weighs strengths, weaknesses and alternatives. The speculator believes "This time is different" and bets the ranch on a strong hunch. Too many administrators are thinking like speculators: “Our students wouldn’t do that”; “They’ll sign a pledge”; “Faculty and staff members will keep an eye on them to make sure they’re wearing masks and socially distancing.”
Several knowledgeable authorities contend that, if college and university leaders think they can harness all these moving parts -- some of which they haven’t even imagined -- they are deluding themselves and engaging in magical thinking. And the arguments of those knowledgeable people are certainly worth pondering. Lives depend on it.