By Ian Krietzberg
Arts & Entertainment Editor
In mid-March, colleges across the nation shut down due to COVID-19, forcing students and professors alike to adapt to an online-only learning environment for the remainder of the semester.
Now, with the fall semester looming, there are over 2.5 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone, according to The New York Times. And with the numbers only rising, it doesn’t seem that it will end any time soon. Although the disease has caused more than 110 thousand deaths, parts of the country are beginning to open up and colleges are desperate to think of a way they can open their doors for the next semester — the College included.
The vast majority of students prefer in-person classes and the regular campus experience than being stuck at home. But, at the crux of this question of whether or not to reopen in the fall is a simple and extremely straightforward fact: nothing has changed since this virus first broke out.
If campuses closed in March for a thousand cases, why should they reopen when the country is plagued by millions of cases and thousands of deaths, with no end in sight?
Any possible vaccine will likely not be ready until the end of the year at its earliest, according to the University of Southern California. Even with that, there’s uncertainty on the effectiveness of the vaccines they are already mass producing. Unless scientists can stumble upon a priorly-approved drug that happens to treat COVID-19, they will have to create a new treatment, which involves months of testing and trials.
And still, testing for the virus in the U.S. is neither fast nor universal.
Despite this, schools are beginning to announce that they are opening in the fall, with the College having released tentative plans on June 26.
Many of these announcements come with pledges to provide PPE to students, to hold some classes online and to limit the number of people on campus, while also enforcing social distancing orders as well. This is, of course, the only possible way a college could feasibly open in the midst of a virus like this. But looking into it, this optimistic plan is simply not possible.
Limiting the number of people living on campus means forcing some people off-campus. The College announced that its residence halls will only be at 62 percent capacity, and others will live in hotel rooms in the Ewing area. How will the administration decide who gets to stay and who must go?
Social distancing orders sound good in theory, but are completely un-enforceable on a college campus. Dorm living does not allow social distancing, by nature of its design, with community bathrooms and living areas. Even if colleges limited dorms to one person per room, as the College has announced, human contact would still be inevitable. And, even if colleges could figure out a way to make dorm living work, college students would almost certainly still see their friends.
Then there comes the question of dining halls, which would breed the coronavirus the way metal conducts electricity. The only real way to fend against COVID-19 and still feed the student population would be delivering food to individual students in their dorms, which is just not realistic.
But, for argument’s sake, let’s say that colleges were able to enforce social distancing, making many classes online and limiting the on-campus population. Students would be in for an exceptionally dismal semester, largely devoid of human contact and entirely devoid of events, speakers, concerts, etc., as stated from Foster’s announcement.
To top that situation off, students would be completely unable to return home to visit their families for fear of spreading the virus: a situation any professor teaching in-person classes would also face.
If colleges open in the fall and the predicted second wave of COVID-19 strikes, the rational thing would be to close down the same way schools did in March.
But colleges could not, at that point, send students home, for fear of compounding the infections among students’ families. This means that, faced with a campus-wide outbreak, campuses could well be forced to lockdown, which is exceptionally dangerous in that it would almost certainly infect the entirety of the college population.
All this said, it would be easier and more feasible for students to be at home with their families than locked in a dorm room for months on end.
There is also the pertinent question of accommodation.
In an environment painfully devoid of vaccines, treatments or testing, colleges simply can’t force students to attend on-campus learning if a student feels unsafe for any reason, regardless of preexisting conditions. The same goes for professors. This is why the College, along with many others, are enforcing ever class to implement online learning as well.
If a great number of professors and students wish to remain online for the semester out of a very real concern for their health and safety, colleges would be forced to comply. In that case, would housing costs be voided for certain students?
It makes far more sense, in light of the current situation, for colleges to be devoting all of their time and energy to creating the best possible online learning experience for all students in the fall rather than trying to figure out a way to solve this impossible question opening up their campuses.
The uncomfortable truth of the matter — a truth that no one really wants to admit — is that this virus is not going anywhere soon. This country, as seen with its rapidly increasing amount of cases, is not yet equipped to stifle its spread and cure the infected portions of our population.
For colleges to open in the fall would be an act of reckless endangerment that would undoubtedly cost lives. If there is even a question of impending illness and fatality for the collegiate population, campuses should close. We are currently facing far more than a mere debate. We are facing an absolute and incontrovertible certainty that this virus — which has not gone away and which will return in even greater force in the next semester — will do as it has done since its inception in that it will infect and kill people.
The only thing that has truly changed since March is the general attitude of the American population — and the virus doesn’t care about how people are feeling. Everyone is impatient to return to some semblance of normalcy, but the fact of the matter remains that we are not equipped to see normal anytime soon. We must face and accept that truth so that we can work to rectify it.
Our struggle against COVID-19 is a marathon, not a sprint. We are in a situation where spending an extra semester online will help get us back to normal in the long-run.
The sooner we try to return to normal, the farther out of reach normalcy will become.
Correction: A previous update said that the College’s housing will be at 38 percent capacity instead of reduced by 38 percent capacity.