When you live in Georgia, a state in which the government has published false COVID-19 incidence data, and your family and friends back home in New York City haunt you with the mantra, “death looms over the city,” you become cynical. Skepticism of the government, your communities and even your family and closest friends outlasts any optimism.
Straddling my health risks in Atlanta and vicariously suffering through beloved New Yorkers, I am perpetually fearful and angry. The pandemic will eventually end, but given that the United States has been reporting a steady two-week increase in cases as of June 28, the worst is far from over.
Yet, Emory University, an institution praised for its medical school, public health school and hospital system, announced its decision to resume residential undergraduate learning on Aug. 19.
As a recent graduate of Emory College, I no longer receive all communications sent to current and incoming students. The decision to reopen does not directly impact me, but I am nevertheless still connected to many students, faculty and staff members who will be directly harmed. I care about their lives and I fear losing them.
Reopening campus this fall is premature and will cost lives. While the University says certain precautions will be taken — such as testing every returning undergraduate for COVID-19 — Emory’s current procedures will not prevent the spread of the disease unless tighter regulations are implemented.
Emory’s plan to reopen dorms is chief among its flawed plans for the upcoming semester. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opening residence halls at full capacity subjects universities to “highest risk” of community transmission. The University must work to minimize physical contact among students.
In addition to Emory’s side of the bargain, students also have the obligation to proactively protect themselves and others. While I believe many Emory students intend to make safe choices, I do not trust that every student will be so responsible. Do we honestly think that students who hosted parties after Emory transitioned to remote learning in March will practice social distancing? Are we ready for students to travel across the country and internationally to return to campus? Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University (Pa.) psychology professor and psychologist who studies risk-taking and self-control in late adolescence, doesn’t think so.
“These plans are so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff,” Steinberg wrote in an article for The New York Times. I wish Emory had the same urgency that Steinberg and I share.
Even students who strictly follow guidelines could easily contract the virus at the airport when arriving in August, in communal restrooms or from roommates. Although younger people are less likely to show COVID-19 symptoms than older people who contract the virus, many have been hospitalized and some have died from the disease or related health complications. Especially for students with pre-existing conditions, just stepping back on campus heightens their risk.
Emory students can continue taking classes virtually, although if only a third will be offered virtually, I predict that those will reach capacity quickly. Still, Emory has guaranteed that students can take all classes virtually if they choose, and don’t have to come back to campus at all. Nevertheless, how will Emory keep its promise to students who opt to enroll exclusively in classes virtually when such offerings are limited? If students refuse to take classes in person beyond Emory’s threshold, which students will the University prioritize? Emory must accommodate all students who prefer classes virtually, no questions asked.
On the other hand, many students cannot afford to continue taking classes remotely. Those in favor of resuming in-person learning have reasonable arguments: many students are living in unsafe conditions and others don’t have access to the necessary tools for online learning or healthcare. For some, Emory is the only dependable source of food, shelter and stability. Globally, the prevalence of poorer mental health, linked to financial and social hardships, is increasing because of the pandemic. This could be another barrier to success for members of the Emory community.
These issues are a reality and should not be taken lightly. When Emory closed its dorms in March and transitioned to online learning, the University didn’t protect its most vulnerable populations. The drastic changes further exposed existing inequity among students. I resonate with the intention to adequately provide for first-generation, low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students.
Ultimately the University provided continued housing to 375 students at its Clairmont Campus through the Spring semester, though we know from an interview with the Wheel that more students applied to stay and were denied. Rather than reopening dorms to all students, Emory should revise the application process to guarantee housing to students who need it.
Of course, students are not the only members of the Emory community. We must also consider those unable to work virtually. Last year, Emory was the largest employer in metro Atlanta with 31,214 full-time employees. This includes cleaning staff, shuttle drivers, food servers and others for whom constant social interaction in the workplace means a high risk of infection. The University has not stated how it will protect such workers.
Interim Provost Jan Love’s sentiment is downright despicable. In an interview with the Wheel, she said, “We know that people will get sick, we can’t bring this number of people together without somebody being sick.”
The University clearly knows that their choice will endanger students’ lives, so why did they make it?
I don’t think it’s bold to infer the motive behind Emory’s choice to reopen, and it’s not the well-being of its community members. It’s money.
Post-secondary institutions everywhere have seen enrollments plummet as students elect to take gap years or pursue other educational options. At Indiana University Bloomington, international student deposits are down 22% compared to previous years. Universities and colleges are clearly panicking, and Emory is no exception.
The preliminary results of a survey conducted in May by College Council and the Student Government Association show that out of 704 student responses, 207 students were likely to take the semester off if it were conducted online. A decrease in tuition collection, whether from students or from financial aid, would severely damage Emory’s budget. Additionally, continuing to pay workers’ salaries while they stay home — a choice I support — is not sustainable in the long run. These are real problems the institution must anticipate and work to avoid, and I understand that finding the perfect solution is difficult, if not impossible.
However, financial stability cannot compromise public health. Emory’s decision breaks my heart because, through all of the complicated variables in this equation, one thing should be clear: life comes first. I know Emory will regret this choice when students start falling sick, when professors are admitted to hospitals and when the body count starts increasing. This is not the worst-case scenario, but a reality that can be avoided.
Emory, I am begging you: reverse your decision. It is not too late to change course and save lives, and doing so would be far from unprecedented. I praise Cambridge University for its bold commitment to conduct all lectures virtually until summer 2021. I am devastated that Emory does not share this commitment to the lives of its students, staff and professors.
I am also shocked that I haven’t seen any significant public opposition to Emory’s decision to reopen this Fall. Faculty at several universities, including Boston University, Purdue University (Ind.) and the University of Illinois at Chicago, have expressed their concerns against teaching in person and are demanding alterations.
On July 2, academic faculty of Georgia Institute of Technology released a statement with concerns for their upcoming on-campus semester. One of the demands is to guarantee remote instruction as the primary medium for classes and work.
“No faculty, staff, or student should be coerced into risking their health and the health of their families by working and/or learning on campus when there is a remote/online equivalent.” Over 680 faculty have signed the petition, and the open form is still circulating.
I urge other Emory community members, especially those with social capital and job security, to follow my lead and speak truth to power.
Make no mistake: I don’t enjoy being isolated. I have my own set of personal struggles resulting from the pandemic; we all do. My peers — who are continuing Emory students — are excited to see their friends again, but at what cost? Will I be saying goodbye to more loved ones in a couple of months?
Why doesn’t Emory care?
Naomi Keusch Baker (20C) is from New York City.