What’s a Safe Enough Space on Campuses Now?

Bringing students back to properly run campuses may well be healthier than leaving them to their own devices and hometown gathering (and watering) places, writes Michael S. Roth.

September 10, 2020
 
 
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When we college and university presidents decided to close our campuses to all but the housing insecure last March, many parents and students immediately complained that we were overreacting, participating in groupthink or “robbing young people of the most important time of their lives.” These complaints stopped quickly as the severity of the pandemic became clearer.

Now, remote-only institutions are dealing with frustrated students and their families complaining about their online experience. And those that have welcomed people back to their campuses are dealing with angry parents and pundits complaining that we’ve enticed youngsters back to environments that endanger them and the surrounding communities.

It makes sense that colleges of different sizes in different parts of the country would come to a variety of conclusions about the impact of the pandemic on their fall semester plans. Major systems, like the California State University network, decided early on that only remote learning would be safe for their students and faculty this year. Other large institutions -- Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame come to mind -- committed months ago to trying to create a safe enough environment for their large campus communities. Notre Dame had to pause in-person classes, and others, like the University of North Carolina, have tried to open and had to close.

At Wesleyan University, we usually have just over 3,000 students, but this year, hundreds of them will choose to study away from campus or take a year off. Yet the great majority want to be back on campus -- even though they know they will be tested for COVID-19 twice a week, that many class sessions will be remote, that there will be no large parties and that social distancing and wearing face masks will be strictly enforced.

Critics charge that colleges are attempting to bring students back only because of the tuition and rent dollars they bring in. And they claim that reckless young people will not adhere to safety protocols and thus increase the spread of the virus. Institutions that last year were said to be bastions of politically correct socialism are now accused of being rapacious profit mongers, and the generation of so-called anxious snowflakes are now said to be reckless party hounds who can’t bother with masks or social distancing. What a difference a year makes!

No doubt, many institutions are under financial duress because of the pandemic, forcing presidents and boards to do some sort of grim cost-benefit analysis involving closed campuses and layoffs. Others have developed hybrid models and are reconfiguring their facilities so as to provide an environment that is not risk-free but as safe as anything but a strict quarantine.

This much is clear: breaking the chain of transmission requires frequent testing with rapid results along with the ability to isolate positive cases. These are basic (and expensive) public health operations, normally the responsibility of government. But we have learned not to count on a coordinated response from an administration more interested in promoting havoc than health. And, in fact, bringing students back to properly run campuses -- with frequent testing and careful housing and dining protocols -- may well be healthier than leaving these young people to their own devices and their hometown gathering (and watering) places.

Even with significant investments in testing, tracing and supportive isolation, colleges do depend on cooperation from undergraduates. I’ve been a college president for more than 20 years, and so I’m not naïve about student behavior. Yet, in reactivating our campus, I am asking our students to rise to the exigencies of this situation. That doesn’t mean not socializing, but it does mean wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding large groups. The university has enforcement tools, and we will use them if people violate public health standards.

Some colleges and universities have been criticized for “blaming students.” But what’s the choice? Infantilizing them (with the obligatory reference to the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex)? In the end, I am counting on students to contribute to caring for one another at a time when they can make a difference. After all, studies show that simple but regular precautions do indeed slow the spread of this awful virus.

Many of the students so eager to return to college understand that they will have to protect one another for the semester to be safe enough. They also understand that it is powerfully compelling to learn in an environment in which you can have informal discussions with people from diverse walks of life -- amplifying the straightforward instruction from classes via serendipitous encounters, informal discussion and collaborative discovery. Plenty of undergraduates know that social life will be different, and that they will have to look out for their friends and neighbors as well as themselves. They may know in the abstract that we might “all be in this together,” but they will discover in personal terms what it means that some are much more vulnerable than others.

There seems to be a large audience for stories of the boorish, selfish behavior of students and the inadequate preparation of many colleges and universities. There is more than a little gloating when campuses have to close. As educational institutions, we have to demand more of ourselves and of our students. We must remind our governing boards, donors and public officials of the necessity of investing resources in testing, tracing and supportive isolation.

It’s also our job to remind students of our collective responsibilities, even when they don’t want to hear it. We will be better at this if we aren’t in the habit of catering to young people as consumers. We should be prepared to turn students away from behavior or from ideas with which they are comfortable and turn them toward new ideas and inconvenient facts that they will struggle to assimilate. This isn’t limited to ideas about social distancing.

Many institutions are not reopening but investing in quality remote teaching. It should be obvious that not all online education is the same -- just as there are differences between in-person tutorials and lecture classes with hundreds in attendance. When professors teaching remotely work to really connect to their students as whole people, when they do more than deliver a syllabus online, students far away from their home campuses will be the beneficiaries. Still, we might ask, who will tell them to wear masks and keep their distance when they are not looking at their screens?

Those on campuses will have to observe public health guidelines if their institutions are to remain open. We’ve already seen that this doesn’t always work, but that doesn’t mean that colleges that are able to invest in testing, tracing and supportive isolation shouldn’t seize this learning opportunity. Their students won’t have large gatherings, and they will wear masks. But they will also build a learning community -- one that can be safe enough -- at a time when we need all the community and learning we can get.

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