On July 17, Emory announced that it will prohibit most students from living on campus this fall. The conversation about whether universities should reopen, thus, could not be more relevant. But one thing is clear: fully-remote education (with limited exceptions for first-year courses and advanced labs) will further impair student learning. It is wholly unnecessary to enact an ill-timed, sweeping reversal of plans for fall. Emory must push for more in-person courses and fight back against mounting pressure from students, governments and media outlets to reduce in-person education.
Higher education systems around the nation, including Emory, seem disconnected from the U.S. government regarding decisions about reopening schools. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (whose sentiments were echoed by a number of college presidents and leaders) told reporters, “It’s clear our nation’s schools must fully reopen and fully operate this school year. Anything short of that robs students … of their futures.” Secretary DeVos is correct.
In-person learning is far more efficacious than the virtual alternative. In response to the pandemic, a Bay View Analytics survey found that “one-half of [higher education] faculty respondents (48%) reduced the amount of work they expected students to complete, while about one-third (32%) lowered their expectations for the quality of student work.” An Axios poll from June 2020 found that among full-time college students, “73% say online learning is less effective than in-person instruction in helping students develop specific skills.” This is consistent with a 2013 Gallup poll that found 43% of adults believe online education is worse than classroom-style instruction at “providing high-quality instruction from well-qualified instructors.” While the first two surveys deal with distance learning during the spring semester and educators will have had more time to optimize their curricula for online delivery this fall, they nevertheless indicate that classes taught online suffer from a strong, baseline level of inadequacy. We must act on what data we have, and what we have is a definitive answer — online learning is inferior. Next semester, Emory will surely fail to live up to its recent promise to “deliver courses that meet Emory’s rigorous standards” because it will deliver most of these courses online. The lower quality of education offered by online learning impairs students now and in the future. By keeping most of its students off-campus, Emory’s decision may very likely inflict damage to the academic and possibly the professional careers of thousands of students, and the full extent of economic impairment brought on by the decision to keep most students home may never be fully understood.
Emory’s lab instruction will likely suffer most of all. Many students received communications in June about physical distancing practices that would be part of laboratory procedures, including daily cleanings and rules that would prevent congregations near shared reagents. These procedures would have significantly reduced the risk of in-person lab activities, but instead, Emory chose to convert several in-person labs to exclusively online instruction on July 14.
Before Emory’s July 17 reversal, a lab course, Advanced Reactivity Lab (CHEM 203L), was switched to online-only due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases around the country. This decision, and the reality of laboratory education, do not reconcile with each other. Senior lecturer in the Chemistry Department Dr. Douglas Mulford wrote in a July 14 email to his enrolled students that “hands-on lab skills simply cannot be learned that way and so, online courses do not meet the needs of the [laboratory] class.” Students will be unable to learn how to use lab equipment safely and precisely. Many will be nearly two semesters behind in learning the proper laboratory techniques necessary for future courses, research projects and careers. Emory must allow students on campus and additionally offer in-person lab courses for all students as they are a vital part of STEM education.
Though educational quality clearly diminishes in remote learning environments, many experts, university presidents and politicians have cited reopening’s high risks as reasons to utilize remote learning or delay physical reopening. But this belief is not well-founded. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has linked COVID-19 to over 140,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. However, the virus may not be as dangerous as it is portrayed for students with no underlying risk factors at Emory. As epidemiologist Robert Verity explained, the case fatality rate “has implications for the scale of an epidemic and how seriously we should take a new disease.” The problem with calculating the case fatality rate is that we know neither the true number of disease-caused deaths nor the number of total cases with complete accuracy. But even without definitive data or unimpeachable analyses, we can still stick to several universally agreed-upon findings, listed below.
Firstly, children and healthy young adults suffer complications and death from COVID-19 at exceedingly low rates. No one is safe or unsafe; risk simply increases with age. According to the CDC, other major risk factors include pre-existing health conditions, especially heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Nearly all Emory students are under the age of 30. Therefore, the majority of students who have no underlying risk factors ought to feel safe on campus. If they are infected with COVID-19, they will almost certainly recover (less than 250 U.S. deaths for patients ages zero to 24 have been attributed to COVID-19 by the CDC as of July 22) and could contribute to the herd immunity we may need to end this pandemic. Though the nature of immunity after an infection is uncertain, scientists and doctors agree that reinfection is rare. Many faculty and staff are at higher risk from the disease because of their age or health and these members of the Emory community ought to stay home.
Though the pandemic has caused thousands of deaths, we continue to make new discoveries in understanding, treating and modelling COVID-19. New research in Nature found that while antibodies to COVID-19 decline rapidly after recovery, 40% to 60% of the population that has not been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 may have lower susceptibility to the disease on account of similarities between this virus and the common cold coronaviruses of the past few years. There have also been advances in the hunt for a vaccine; an Emory news report exhibits promising results from early vaccine trials conducted at the University’s Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit.
While Emory was probably justified in sending students home in March based on what we knew at the time, our modeling and treatment protocols have both since improved drastically, meaning that we can’t use the same reasoning to close this fall as we did in the spring. Truly, the fatally-flawed Imperial College Model (which was used by multiple countries to justify lockdowns) predicting 2.2 million U.S. deaths has not aged well; to date, there have been less than 150,000 deaths (exact numbers are uncertain due to inconsistent data collection across states). Even so, it is still important to reduce transmission where possible as we wait for better therapeutics and vaccines to become available (though, there is no guarantee of either). Entirely online instruction will likely reduce COVID-19 transmission more than if students are brought back to campus, but bringing students back would probably not overwhelm the healthcare system and will not necessarily cause an unmanageable outbreak. There is no policy that will stop infections from occurring entirely, and in-person instruction can be augmented with public health precautions (as Emory is committed to doing), such as utilizing face coverings, to significantly slow the virus’s spread.
Wearing face coverings has become increasingly popular in the U.S.; 44% of Americans always wear a face mask outside of the home, with another 28% reporting that they wear a mask “very often,” a June 29 – July 5 Gallup poll found. Face coverings reduce, even if only marginally, the expulsion of droplets from the mouth and nose that could contain the virus and infect others. Emory clearly understood this when they mandated face coverings this fall. Other efforts to reduce viral spread include the limitation of large or unregistered gatherings and the creation of campus proctors to maintain a safe environment. I am among the students wary of wearing a mask in some situations, such as going for a walk outside, but I am entirely willing to wear a medical mask indoors on campus to protect other students and employees. I believe most students would similarly wear a mask if they are given the opportunity to return to campus, thus slowing the spread of the virus.
Some members of the Emory community fall into demographics more likely to be adversely affected by COVID-19. Students, faculty and staff who are older or have pre-existing health conditions can still stay home and learn or teach. Furthermore, with students living on campus, older family members who may be at risk no longer have to fear infection from their younger relatives. However, to ensure quality education, the majority of classes should occur in person. Alternatively, a better system would be to include more in-person classes for students living on campus while simultaneously offering online sections of the same classes for remote learners. Students and faculty who believe their risk outweighs the benefits of in-person learning should be encouraged to work and learn remotely. But those who are healthy and willing ought to come to campus unafraid of adverse health outcomes.
We cannot allow our University to obstruct student learning by enacting policies that will effectively make the college a mostly online-only educator this fall. Sign the petition at change.org/reopenemory.
Patrick Czabala (23C) is from Roswell, Georgia.