When schools transitioned to online learning this spring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the biggest concerns from parents and students centered on one group: students in their senior years.
College seniors, people worried, would miss out on their graduation ceremonies. Their last semester of college — a hugely formative time — would be completely disrupted. How would they get to say goodbye to their friends before the next chapter of their lives began?
As colleges contemplate plans for the 2020-2021 school year, the same concerns about another group of students missing out on these joyous experiences are popping up. Should colleges push to get students back on campus in order to preserve these experiences?
As an incoming college senior, I think the answer is easy: I’d rather stay safe from COVID-19 than finish my degree in-person. I’m a first-generation student, so the on-campus experience isn’t something I take for granted, but I’m willing to give it up so that my classmates and I can stay healthy enough to see that next chapter of our lives.
A risky return
Shockingly, the idea that colleges should lean towards online-only learning is an unpopular opinion. Most students don’t want to go virtual, according to a survey by Niche.
In a survey of 10,000 U.S. high school and college students, 77% said in-person instruction was “appealing” compared to hybrid or online learning. However, these students specified that they favored in-person instruction on the condition that it could be done safely. Schools that reopened this summer have proven that, at least for now, it can’t be.
Colleges with substantial student populations over the summer have already seen coronavirus outbreaks, especially associated with fraternity and sorority housing. Student athletes are practicing on campuses and testing positive for COVID-19. Classmates are traveling to crowded beaches, posting about their vacations on Instagram like it’s just a normal summer. Others are moving back to campus early to lead new student orientations.
Between major events, Greek house parties, and students living on top of each other in crowded dorms, universities can barely manage flu outbreaks each winter. COVID-19 will be no different.
The scene on campus
I attend Mercer University, a private liberal arts college located in Macon, Georgia. Mercer has announced that they have no plan for online instruction this fall, meaning that students either have to come to class in-person or take time off. By refusing to offer an online learning option, they are effectively forcing students to choose between their health and their education. That’s a choice nobody should have to make.
The School of Medicine here on campus swears that it has the capacity to test 1,000 people per day and release results within 48 hours. However, as Editor-in-Chief of our student newspaper, I’ve already received reports from students on campus for the summer being discouraged from seeking tests after coming in contact with someone who was COVID-19 positive. Others have said that when they approached members of the administration with their concerns about the reopening plan, asking for an online option, they were told to just transfer to another school.
Larry Brumley, senior vice president for marketing communications and chief of staff at Mercer University, said that administration hasn’t heard of students being dissuaded from taking tests.
“If they were discouraged from taking the test, that is not our policy. I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened. It’s possible it could have happened,” he said. “But that is not the policy.”
He said physicians may have told students that they didn’t necessarily need tests based on a physician’s evaluation and that students may have misinterpreted that guidance. Tests, Brumley said, are always available to anyone who wants them.
Brumley also said that while administrators have not specifically said that students should “transfer” schools, students who asked what their “options” were this fall if they were uncomfortable attending in-person were told that they could “just sit out until you do feel comfortable coming to campus. That is an option. Or you can always — you can go somewhere else if you don’t feel like Mercer is the right fit for you.”
Brumley is confident in Mercer’s safety initiatives, which he said have been developed over several months with the help of infectious disease experts who work in local hospitals treating COVID-19 patients.
However, it’s not Mercer’s initiatives that worry me; it’s students’ adherence to those initiatives, the fact that we’re being told to go somewhere else when we criticize the school we pay to attend, and the nature of college life itself.
What does quarantine look like on a college campus packed with residential students living two or more to a room and sharing communal bathrooms? And what does self-isolation look like when students attend classes while sick every year to avoid violating class attendance requirements?
Mercer will require masks in most campus buildings, but that’s still not enough. Students do not solely exist on our campuses. We have to leave for certain things, like groceries. Many students will go home on weekends, eat at restaurants, or attend parties, probably without masks.
Only 36 states require masks in public at all times; here in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp actually banned cities from requiring them (although in Macon-Bibb County, commissioners defied the order and have mandated mask use in public until at least August 20). This means that students will leave campus mask-free, come back to their dorms, work out in the campus gym, and infect their communities, peers, and professors every single day.
Do the right thing
I’m concerned, too, about what an in-person mandate says about schools’ consideration for students, faculty, and staff from backgrounds that are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
The virus can take a significant toll on immunocompromised people, low-income folks, and people of color. For example, Black Americans are dying at “substantially higher” rates than their proportion of the state population in 21 states, according to NPR. Hispanic and Latinx folks test positive at higher rates than would be expected for their share of the population in 43 states and Washington, DC.
These disparities are at least partially due to the fact that both groups are overrepresented in situations of poverty and in jobs with high risk for COVID-19 exposure, according to NPR’s analysis. The Kaiser Family Foundation also reports that low-income communities of any race are disproportionately likely to develop serious illness if infected with COVID-19 due to less access to health insurance and increased risk of living with an underlying health condition.
When schools decide they’re willing to reopen, they’re signaling that members of the school community who are at high risk are worth less than the costs of campus housing and meal plans that they pay. Colleges’ vague COVID-19 safety promises are a farce. Students deserve to have an option that will truly keep us safe: attending classes remotely from home.
If we practice social distancing and mask use appropriately, we might be able to resume life as normal by the spring. Maybe I will get to receive my degree on stage when I graduate in May after all.
But if there is no ceremony, my family is going to be proud of me anyway, and there will be opportunities to celebrate once it’s safe. I’m willing to wait, and I think colleges should be too.
It’s time to go online.
Written by Emily Rose Thorne