Picture of desks with acrylic shields put as a preventive measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, at a Motolinia school classroom in Mexico City, on July 15, 2020, ahead of the reopening of educational facilities.
Confusion and frustration hamper push to reopen schools
02:14 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He is senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

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In April, the interim president of the University of North Carolina announced that he wanted all of UNC campuses to re-open in the fall. In August, the UNC Board of Governors announced their mandate that campuses reopen. Last week they all got their way, with the dorms at UNC re-opening at full capacity and everyone gearing up for at least some in-person classes, despite faculty protests.

David M. Perry

Students came back. So did Covid-19. Students started testing positive, with the outbreaks clustered around dorms and fraternity houses. As the intrepid editors of UNC’s college paper, The Daily Tar Heel, put it, “we all saw this coming.” (The original headline was a bit more colorful but the point remains the same.)

A week after the experiment to see whether college kids could live on campus and keep socially distanced began, it’s over. UNC’s leadership announced a return to fully remote education and full refunds for students who leave the dorms and go home. UNC-Chapel Hill’s chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told local news he was “surprised at the velocity and magnitude” of the spread of the virus.

In the wake of the UNC fiasco, we have to reckon with the price of failure. Students at Chapel Hill are going home now and they are taking their viral load with them. As a result, to be blunt, more people are going to die. College students can die from Covid-19. They also risk spreading the virus to the people with whom they live and their communities. These deaths and illness will be directly attributable to the decisions of our leaders in the higher education community.

Other colleges and universities are sure to follow UNC’s path. Over the weekend, a video of a huge and largely mask-free party at the University of North Georgia went viral on social media. Oklahoma State University placed a sorority under quarantine after 23 of its members tested positive. An off-campus party at Notre Dame led to a spike in coronavirus cases. More will surely follow.

That’s because predictably, any plan for social distancing based on keeping college students apart, many of whom are living away from their parents for the first time, is doomed to fail. Students will party, of course, but they’ll also just want to meet their community, sit together, chat late into the night, and yes, have sex. It’s hard to imagine an environment more conducive to the spread of a pandemic than college dorms at full capacity. The question is, what happens next?

At a press conference hastily assembled by UNC leadership, as reported by Sara Pequeño for IndyWeek (a local outlet in the Chapel Hill area), Provost Robert Blouin said, “I don’t apologize for trying,” when asked whether he regretted bringing students back. This response is appalling. He should apologize. And if people die as a result of the crowding in UNC dorms, the school’s leadership should resign. That’s true across the country, where a number of highly paid chancellors and presidents have decided to put their populations of students, faculty, and staff – and everyone with whom they come in close contact — at risk by reopening dorms and holding in-person classes. They need to be held accountable for those decisions when they go badly.

Even as UNC was closing down, Mark Schlissel, the president of the University of Michigan and a physician, was minimizing the lack of robust, frequent, community-wide testing in a faculty town hall. The well-known biologist Carl Bergstrom, who grew up in Ann Arbor, retorted on Twitter against Schlissel’s comments and told me, “The situation at UNC should be a strong cautionary tale to any university planning to reopen without plans in place for aggressive entry testing and ongoing practice screening of faculty, staff, and students. “In light of that, the cavalier attitude toward testing the Dr. Schlissel exhibited in his virtual Faculty Town Hall is extremely concerning.”

These handful of big schools are just the first wave of students currently gearing up to head back to campus, but they seem to indicate the worst is yet to come. Some schools, to their credit, already shifted course in mid-summer and have gone back to a fully-remote model for the Fall. Others, including my own, are plowing ahead with some form of reopening campus, hoping their safety measures will be sufficient.

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    Not only should our leaders be held accountable for what happens next, but right now they should also be fully transparent: publish plans with metrics and thresholds for how they’ll decide when to abandon ship on in-person education. Any decision-makers must ask themselves: How many students, faculty, and staff are you willing to let get sick because you reopened dorms and brought students back into classrooms? How many deaths will it take until we once again close our doors? I hope we don’t have to find out.