This is such a moving target that, by the time I complete this, circumstances that were in place when I began may very well be changed. Having said that, it seems that many colleges have made the decision to open for the fall. This could all change, of course, if governors decide that it is too dangerous. Governors are generally like school superintendents making a decision whether to close school for weather or other reasons: they wait for the first to jump, see the response, and then decide whether the alternative has worse potential consequences, both politically and actually.
But let’s go with the assumption that at least some colleges will be open in the fall. There seems to be a consensus building for a Mid-August to Thanksgiving semester with no breaks. One has to assume this is to avoid a predicted late fall/early winter second wave of Covid-19. The lack of breaks is also to limit the exposure to those outside the university.
Some of the changes will be positive. Lectures will now be virtual, as they should have been years ago. There is no good reason for students ever to be sitting in a lecture hall. Virtual instruction allows students to learn in an environment that is best for them. There’s going to be more concern and action about students’ health, particularly mental health.
Colleges are starting to talk about asking students to sign liability waivers, which more aptly should be named responsibility waivers: they take no responsibility for their decision to open during a pandemic. I’m not a lawyer, but logic tells me that they are not worth the paper they are written on. For one, you cannot sign away your rights if you were harmed by pure negligence. Even if that was not the case, the harm would not come to the adult student who is signing it; it would be to the parents, grandparents, siblings and other extended family of the student. It would be impossible for colleges to indemnify themselves from the possible net of individuals who may be affected by this decision.
Remember, in almost every town and hamlet, there will be at least one kid coming home from college. That is a lot of potential exposure.
The message so far from colleges is about how they will prevent infection and treat the infected. They will require facemasks and social distancing. No concerts, lectures, fans. Dining halls will be handing out pre-made meals. They may have plastic barriers between bathroom sinks and an attempt, somehow, to eliminate same-room roommates.
But, let’s be honest here. This is a fool’s errand. Infection will be spread through activities, social and sexual, which are out of the college’s purview. Not some students, but virtually all, will become infected. We are talking about adolescents here.
So why not be honest and plan for the obvious? Here’s the letter you should be sending to your incoming students:
You have gotten a bum rap. You had to suddenly be sent home with no preparation for learning or living in this new normal. Now you have to make the decision as to whether it is worth coming to campus this fall. Things will be different. Lectures will be virtual, no fans will be allowed at sporting events and there will be no large events allowed, from concerts to parties. There will be changes in almost all aspects of your school life, from the way we serve meals to how we set up bathrooms. We will ask you all to do those things we know to reduce infection: wear masks, social distance, wash your hands regularly. We will ask this when you are within our purview, such as in classrooms or administration buildings, or when you are in common spaces.
At other times, we hope that students show good judgment and continue to avoid infection. But the reality is that we cannot monitor that private activity and believe that most of the students are likely to be infected. Fortunately, most of you who do become infected will either be asymptomatic or have symptoms no worse than a cold or the common flu. So here is our plan:
*We will test, treat and isolate any students who are symptomatic (coughing, fever, etc.)
*We will test every student two weeks prior to the Thanksgiving break and will isolate any student who tests positive. If the numbers justify it, we may have to switch to all digital learning at this point.
*We will give paid furloughs to any employees who are at high-risk if they get this virus.
*We will continue on-line instruction for those choosing this option.
You are adults and this is one of the biggest adult decisions many of you have ever needed to make. The most difficult decisions come about by balancing hopes and risks. If you are a commuter student who lives with at risk individuals, you should either decide to abide by strict virus control measures or not come to campus. If you are a student who wants to leave campus for any reason, you should realize that you may be putting other people’s lives at risk by doing so.
We have heard loud and clear that students are not happy with on-line instruction and want to return to campus, and we want to give you that opportunity, with your full knowledge and acceptance that there may be risks and consequences associated with this decision. We respect you as adults to make the best decisions for you and your families. If you are just admitted and choose to defer for a year, we will honor that request. We will accept transfer credits from any regionally accredited college or university you take during the coming year. We will return admissions deposits until the first day of classes for any student who chose to disenroll or defer.
We would love to see you, but the decision on whether to return to campus, continue virtual instruction or choose another option is up to you. If you have made a tentative decision, we would love to hear it, for the more we know, the better we can plan. But this is no commitment on your part.
Go [school mascot]’s!