After many local and state governments nationwide reopened their economies in early June, California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently rolled back such efforts in 30 counties, a move mirrored by other hard-hit states, including Florida and Texas. Although cases have been rising rapidly in Georgia, warranting new reversal policies, in Gov. Brain Kemp’s address this Wednesday, he suspended the statewide mask mandate, instead opting to “strongly encourage” the use of face coverings in public spaces. In light of these new decisions, it’s time we reconsider how an in-person fall semester may exacerbate an already deteriorating problem.
These belated state decisions, coupled with Americans’ foolhardy tendencies to forgo masks and ignore social distancing guidelines, have enabled cases to skyrocket nationally even as many other countries have virtually eliminated the virus. Before eagerly planning our return to campus or spending time with friends in high-risk situations, we must aim to ensure the safety of those around us.
Columbia University (N.Y.) virologist Angela Rasmussen believes the first wave will likely be the only wave, given that “in the U.S., we are lifting lockdowns when there are still an increasing number of cases in a bunch of states … we may just have peaks and valleys of transmission over and over again as people’s behavior changes.”
Wearing masks, avoiding overcrowded events and minimizing high-risk situations can mitigate those peaks, but we cannot return to our normal lives until a vaccine is available to the public that allows a certain percentage of the population to develop immunity to the virus. Although Emory has provided extensive details regarding on-campus public health measures, many of the University’s procedures seem more optimistic than pragmatic. Minute policies like increased airflow in classrooms and deep-cleaning procedures will not make a difference unless we can strictly enforce concrete ways to prevent the spread of the virus on campus.
Moreover, Emory’s plan for resuming residential learning suggests we will return to campus without many of the freedoms that define the college experience. If adhering to University guidelines by limiting unnecessary social interaction and maintaining personal hygiene isn’t feasible for you, don’t put others at risk and think about the long-term consequences of returning to campus for you and your family.
Many students will be eager to ignore social distancing guidelines, and it is the University’s responsibility to be upfront with the Emory community and explain that this semester will be unlike any other and will require the compliance of everyone on campus. Given the uptick in cases over the past few weeks and the varied ages of people contracting the virus, the University’s far-fetched reopening plan may never come to fruition at all.
University of California Berkeley’s University Health System confirmed 47 COVID-19 cases last week, tied to a series of recent parties connected to the CalGreek system, where students were not following appropriate social distancing measures. If fraternities at Emory hosted parties without University approval in March, how can we trust that campus will be a safe environment for all students in the fall?
Additionally, given the abundance of communal spaces, such as dorm bathrooms, study lounges, libraries and dining halls on campus, multiple people will likely contract the virus — a fact Interim Provost Jan Love agreed would inevitably happen.
Daniele Struppa, president of Chapman University (Calif.), stated “[administrators] are making decisions with incomplete information” as some university officials nationally explore starting the semester later or ending early to avoid a potentially dangerous winter outbreak.
Sweeping plans to reopen campus may prove prohibitively detrimental if, come August, cases have not decreased significantly. Although communicating with students, parents, faculty and staff is extremely important, Emory must emphasize that its plans will be subject to change as we continue to monitor the spread over the next few months.
I encourage Emory administrators to take this question seriously as more than just an economic issue and make a decision that benefits students in the long term. I also encourage Emory students and parents to remember that the plans currently in place for the fall semester may change should University officials decide it is no longer safe to bring students back.
The college experience is most definitely an important part of our lives, but our safety must come first. Until COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths at least plateau in Georgia, returning to campus should be the least of our concerns. Otherwise, we might have to deal with consequences more severe than missing a semester of the quintessential college experience.
Sara Khan (23C) is from Fairfax, Virginia.