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University campuses in the US should reconsider opening this fall

This past March, universities rushed to shut down on-campus operations as COVID-19 spread like wildfire across America. This decision objectively hit students who lived on campus and international students the hardest. Those who lived on campus were hard-pressed to find other means of housing as some universities gave students a only a few days’ notice to move out. Many returned to their home states and cities to live with their families to finish out the semester virtually. International students were faced with a very different dilemma: if they returned to their home countries, would they be allowed back into the US to attend the fall semester? Travels bans and restrictions were being implemented by most countries and at the time, nobody knew how long they would last. A friend of mine who is an international student elected to stay in the US rather than return to India for the summer for fear of not being able to come back to finish her master’s, but now she is separated from her family for an indefinite period of time.

Now, with the economy rapidly opening back up, some universities are planning to return to on-site instruction in the fall, despite staying largely online during the summer. Northeastern University in Massachusetts has planned a phased return to campus, as have many other universities, by slowly populating campus over this summer with the intention of offering on-site instruction and residence for students this fall, although student density in residence halls will be reduced. They will also be offering hybrid classes through a specialized platform called NuFlex – some students will be on-ground and others will be able to watch it live through an online platform. Northeastern has been unclear about how this will work from the faculty end.

American University in Washington, D.C. is also shifting to a hybrid model for this fall with a combination of in-person and online instruction methods while reducing density in residence halls. The university plans to permit only first-year students and sophomores to live in single occupancy rooms, which has put upper-class students and graduate students intending to live in dorms at a large disadvantage and in a panic to find off-campus housing two months before the semester begins. In addition, on-campus instruction will not continue after Thanksgiving break at the end of November. At that time, all classes and final exams will be conducted remotely. Students would only be returning to campus for a three-month period.

Penn State, Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Vanderbilt in Tennessee, the University of Michigan, as well as many other universities around the country, will be adopting similar measures: a hybrid of in-person and online instruction to switch to fully remote around Thanksgiving break. In-person classes will be noticeably smaller and physical distancing safety measures will be taken. Other safety measures include the requirement of wearing masks, staggered business hours, increased disinfection and cleaning, and large-scale testing and contact tracing.

Big questions remain, however. How will universities enforce the wearing of masks, social distancing, and individual hygiene? What protection will there be for those who must interact with people who refuse to follow safety measures? How will they implement large-scale testing and contract tracing when cities and states all over the country have failed to do so? When students and staff inevitably catch COVID-19, will universities hold themselves accountable? How will all of this affect tuition?

Most universities have not yet determined what tuition will look like in the fall. Some students have already filed lawsuits against their universities demanding refunds for the spring 2020 semester, stating the sudden move to remote education did not reflect their tuition payment nor their expectation of the college experience. This past spring did not allow for students to access research facilities, gyms, and other on-campus resources once campuses shut down; but we still paid for those fees at the beginning of the semester. Many universities did, however, refund room and board payments at a prorated rate. 

The reopening of college campuses in the fall also begs the question of whether these decisions are financially motivated. Having on-site instruction with all extra facilities open and students living in dorms would allow universities to charge all activity fees and on-campus residence fees without consequence. On the other hand, some universities are actually making tuition adjustments for the upcoming semester to attract more students. Michigan State will be freezing tuition, and Franciscan University in Ohio will be covering 100 percent of tuition for new students in fall 2020.

Tied to tuition is the fact that some students are unhappy with online education. In a survey conducted by Inside Higher ED, 33 percent of high school seniors said they would defer or cancel their admittance if their university opted for remote-only education. Already enrolled students have stated they would transfer to a cheaper school or take a semester off in the event of remote-only courses. The fear of losing students, therefore losing tuition money, may be a motivating factor for colleges to reopen their campuses.

If it were up to me, I would opt for all college campuses in the US to remain closed during the fall in order to combat any potential risk increase. The upcoming semester would also give us the perfect opportunity to invest more effort into a digital learning environment, because, as this past semester has shown us, we certainly need to improve digital learning. Online education has been given a bad reputation in that it carries the stigma of being low-quality. In-person courses are superior for some subjects (e.g. sciences that required labs), but remote courses, if designed for an online environment, can offer the same level of education with higher degrees of flexibility which allows students juggling jobs and family to work at their own pace. In a time like this, online education also facilitates social distancing and reduces the need to go out.

Conversely, there are some issues with remote learning that need addressing, the biggest being accessibility and equity. Universities would need to make sure that students with disabilities have accessible options, such as video lectures with captions, and make sure all students have access to reliable WiFi and tech. In addition, connection to internet in the United States is a larger issue that needs to be addressed at state and federal levels.

But without a doubt, by reopening campuses, universities are setting themselves up to endanger their own students, faculty, and staff. It seems that university administrators are prioritizing economic prosperity over public health. College campuses are breeding grounds for this virus. Not to mention that experts are predicting a second surge of COVID-19 cases this fall as the entire country opens back up over the summer. Even now, cases continue to skyrocket on a consistent upward trend, and the president is calling for less testing. Hospitals across America were overwhelmed and devastated this past spring, and many are still struggling to keep up with new cases, in addition to routine procedures. This will undoubtedly happen again. There is currently no standardized treatment and a vaccine is months away.

Critics argue that schools are not fully facing the reality of our current limits on medical technology and the failure of our political institutions to combat this pandemic. President Trump has terminated US relations with the World Health Organization, which could have dire consequences for access to testing and vaccines, and by the end of this month, the Trump administration will irresponsibly end federal funding and support for local COVID-19.

COVID-19 is not yet completely understood, but scientists have determined that, like most respiratory illnesses, this virus can cause long-lasting damage to one’s lungs and heart. Knowing this, why are universities considering putting students, faculty, and staff in such a potentially harmful situation? And, when another widespread wave does inevitably hit the American population, will universities repeat what happened this past spring and abruptly kick students off their campuses?

Universities may concern themselves over their financial statuses, and it is not a bad thing to explore routes that will allow them financial stability, but it is morally reprehensible to reopen universities when doing so would bring about an unacceptable, possibly deadly, rate of transmission of COVID-19. Without a vaccine on its way to the public soon, reopening universities is dangerous.

By Dola Haque

Dola Haque is a Master of Arts student in English at Northeastern University. Her research includes rhetorics of immigration and race, global feminisms, and narratives and storytelling. Language is her obsession. She is an aspiring novelist and public scholar who hopes to crush the hetero-normative patriarchy while unapologetically finding ways to be joyful and singing her way through life.