Emory University President Greg Fenves announced days before the new year that the spring semester would begin with virtual classes due to a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant. In addition to online classes, Emory’s new policies include reduced extracurricular activities and a strongly discouraged option to return to campus. For students who choose to return, the University will operate at a limited capacity with a 25 person limit to nonacademic gatherings, nonessential virtual events, a prohibition on indoor dining and a continued mask mandate.
Despite high national caseloads and the emergence of the Omicron variant, Emory’s decision to shut down and switch to virtual learning was a mistake. The University should return to a normal operating standard as soon as possible.
Emory, like many other universities, cites the highly transmissible Omicron variant as an extraordinary circumstance necessitating the University to make operating changes. However, Omicron is also less likely to result in hospitalization and death. Individuals who received a booster shot, which Emory has mandated, have thus far shown substantial immunity from severe outcomes from the Omicron variant. Emory students as a whole are thus at low risk of severe illness and hospitalization even without multiple vaccine doses. Professors who are at higher risk can make decisions about whether to hold their own classes online. A blanket edict barring in-person classes is a disservice to both students and professors.
In his announcement, Fenves stated “all [students] are encouraged to delay their return to campus … to help reduce on-campus density during the surge.” If the goal of this policy, as Fenves suggests, is to lessen caseloads during the Omicron surge, virtual learning is not the answer. Virtual learning has proven to be inferior to in-person learning; students learn less, cheat more and suffer toiling consequences on their mental health. Virtual learning is not even a worthwhile mitigation strategy: According to Emory’s own website, there is no evidence that in-person classes resulted in a single transmitted COVID-19 case last semester. Under Fenves’ new policy, students will still be able to come to Atlanta and contract COVID-19 from roommates and off-campus social events, while getting a sub-par online education. In other words, moving classes online is ineffective and detrimental to the student body.
The emergence of new variants over the coming months and years is inevitable, making it critical for institutions to change their response. The scientific community largely believes COVID-19 will become endemic, which means the virus will be ubiquitous but no longer cause severe illness and hospitalization. Instead of feeling alarmed, we should remember that we are equipped to face the virus. Tools like vaccines and antiviral treatments make today’s COVID-19 spikes a different game compared to the early days of the pandemic. It is unreasonable for the University to force students to shift to online learning every time a new variant emerges. Conditional on future variants continuing to present a low risk to students, we should learn to live with them and resume “normal” life as we’ve come to know it.
Any plan the University has to get out of a purgatory of restrictions is hindered by its continued lack of transparency. Emory has provided no parameter to determine when in-person activities will be safe to resume, only stating that classes will be in-person after a three week remote period “should conditions permit.” The burden should be on administrators, not students, to explain the reasoning behind their decisions. Students now face the same uncertainty returning to campus that they did when universities shut down in March 2020.
Students should not be expected to pivot every time COVID-19 cases increase. Over 98% of students are vaccinated, and protocols such as mask-wearing help prevent transmission. Emory owes students transparency and a guarantee that COVID-19 will no longer be detrimental to their education, because education should be the last thing that is compromised in a pandemic.
The University has failed to identify what it is trying to achieve with its COVID-19 policies. It is unclear whether Emory is trying to reduce case numbers, prevent hospitalizations, or stop the hotel from being overloaded with quarantine cases. If the University’s goal is simply to limit cases, that is quickly becoming a flawed and outdated metric as the virus is becoming less dangerous and more transmissible. Emory’s continued unwillingness to clue students into COVID-19 decisions is unacceptable. If the University opts to maintain restrictions beyond Jan. 31, it must explain what these measures are attempting to achieve and why compromising education is necessary.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Rachel Broun, Kyle Chan-Shue, Sophia Ling, Demetrios Mammas, Daniel Matin, Sara Perez, Sophia Peyser, Ben Thomas, Chaya Tong and Leah Woldai.