On Dec. 28, 2021, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 431,567 new COVID-19 cases. That morning, Emory University President Gregory Fenves announced that the first three weeks of the spring 2022 semester would be conducted online.
Despite student calls for in-person classes, Emory’s decision to begin online was the right decision. The University’s current testing policies should be strengthened to proactively protect against the Omicron variant when in-person classes begin in late January.
After two devastating years of COVID-19, setbacks like Omicron are exasperating. But pandemic burnout is not an excuse to relax the commitment to keeping our community safe. With Omicron’s high level of transmissibility, we need robust protocols in place in order to protect those who are most vulnerable, such as the immunocompromised and adults over 65. Every day, we are learning new information about the Omicron variant, and we do not know about its potential transmissibility in close quarters, like classrooms, even while masked. As such, we cannot justify beginning classes in person with rising case numbers. Preventing on-campus transmission early in the semester with gateway testing after students arrive and online classes will likely prevent the drastic uptick in cases that occurred at the beginning of the fall semester.
The Omicron variant is proving disruptive to travel plans as well, and many students may find themselves with precarious travel plans with as many as 4,000 flights already canceled globally. Shifting to online classes allows students to utilize their best judgment as to when to return to campus, without forcing students to return when it is unsafe for them to travel.
Around 820,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone, and countless others are still suffering from long-term effects like brain fog, lack of taste, heart conditions and numerous other medical conditions. The consequences can be even more incapacitating for those with previously held medical conditions. We cannot risk the lives of others because we are young, vaccinated and want to return to a normal that doesn’t exist for so many. In-person classes are not worth someone’s life. Experts indicate the virus may eventually become endemic, and its effects less fatal — but we haven’t progressed to this yet. Instead, it is still deadly, with unknown long-term effects. Relaxing our protocols will only enhance the progression of the virus and lead to thousands more dead in the coming winter months. The greater number of infections leads to new variants that only further interrupt our attempts to return to normalcy in the future. We must be vigilant and steadfast to keep our community safe.
Emory’s community is larger than young, vaccinated students. It’s blatantly selfish to put our desires above thousands of people’s safety. Think outside of yourself. Beginning the semester online protects more than students; the University is composed of health care workers who are constantly fighting against COVID-19. Nursing students are working in hospitals with vulnerable patients. Many of our professors have unvaccinated children under five or older parents to care for. Our facilities workers maintain our campus, allow us to return to our dorms and deserve to keep their families safe. They make the commitment to Emory students, and we are obligated to return that commitment. It’s the least we can do for the workers who make our experiences at Emory possible.
However, Emory’s plan is not perfect. More should be done to prepare for an in-person spring semester after the initial buffer of online classes. The University should shift its testing protocols to mandate random surveillance testing, where new groups of students are randomly selected to test once a week. This method allows for clusters of infection to be identified, and close contacts to be notified. Columbia University (N.Y.) and Duke University (N.C.) have implemented these policies, and students are able to safely enjoy their semesters. By increasing awareness of infections around campus, it allows us to proactively limit the spread of the virus while not overwhelming testing resources.
We are all tired of COVID-19. We want to be back in person. But our desires for normalcy do not supersede the necessity of safety. Delaying our in-person classes is one way we can protect our professors and fellow students. After these three weeks, we will come together again. Our immunocompromised peers will be thankful they can enjoy equitable access to in-person classes; our older professors will be excited to return to the classroom with safety setting the tone of the semester. Our community can only prosper if we are safe and healthy. Selfishness will not end the pandemic. We have to look outside ourselves and be more compassionate for the broader Emory family. The alternative is being complicit in harming countless members of our community.
Rachel Broun (23C) is from Carrboro, North Carolina.