Where The Colleges Went Wrong? Did They Open At High Risk?

Nikki Attkisson | Last Updated : September 23, 2020

Colleges were aware of the dangers when they began the new school year. After all, in March, in the hope of curbing the spread of the virus, most had pivoted to virtual learning, either temporarily or permanently. But by the fall, school administrators had to make another decision: are they reopening in the midst of a Covid-19 pandemic? And if they do, will it be safely done?

Where the colleges went wrong? Did they open at high risk?

Local health authorities, in some cases, cautioned schools against accepting back students. In others, the teachers and staff were the ones who spoke out against reopening. Though there were a lot of measures already informed about the authorities, there were mistakes from their side. National government officials struggled to reconcile contradictory recommendations from lawmakers and public health practitioners while also balancing pressure from students, parents, and athletic programs.

Ultimately, several schools agreed to allow students back, reminding their families that there are new safety precautions in place, and tests for Covid remain ready. But the safety measures were not enough — there are now more than 40,000 Covid cases—19 involving students, faculty, and staff at colleges and universities around the country, according to a CNN tally earlier this month. Students who tested positive were relegated to undesirable quarantine housing on some campuses and told to self-quarantine. They sent home others who were caught partying.

Colleges have turned what should be an exciting time for learners at every step of the way into a nightmare for everyone with no end in sight. Here’s why the reopening of US colleges went so badly. The entire burden of controlling the pandemic came on the students. They had to make sure that they were following the duties properly. A lot of things had to be kept in mind. Julia Marcus, who is also known as an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, rightfully predicted back in July that universities were going to blame the actions of students for any outbreaks of Covid-19.

The expert also said that this was the case of merely under the planning of the colleges. Marcus told CNN in a recent interview that any public health initiative that involves drastic changes in behavior and perfect enforcement is doomed to fail. And that’s what is happening, exactly. To motivate them to be checked and to warn them to stay away from social events, many colleges have prioritized forcing students to be on their best behavior. But it simply isn’t enough to tell students to keep six feet away from others, wear a mask, and wash their hands, Marcus said.

It will become clear to them that what they are asking from a college student is impractical if school administrators could put themselves back in their 18-year-old selves for just a minute. But I think what’s happened on campuses has been a lack of empathy. Some campuses have offered guidelines for the development of social pods, a technique that Marcus said is more practical because it offers a low-risk socialization choice for students. As an alternative to indoor meetings, some have built large social outdoor spaces, thereby drawing. They have also made the students who live in high-risk areas to stay away from the colleges and attend online classes.

On college campuses, this sort of risk-aversion already exists — just have a look at underage drinking. Colleges know that before they are legally licensed to do so, students will eventually drink, and have established safer options for social activities that do not require alcohol in response. In May, the American College Health Association prepared a 20-page document detailing concerns to be taken into account by colleges and universities before reopening. This entails topics such as spacing students in residence halls, incorporating a combination of in-person and online courses, and arranging for housing in quarantine. And, for the most part, colleges have done this to the best of their ability. But maybe their best wasn’t enough, some students said.

He tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month, said Sam Burnstein, a junior at the University of Michigan. He assumes that he got it from one of his roommates. It’s not necessarily that the accommodations were that bad — it’s that they seemed like an afterthought, he said, and from the beginning, there was a lot of ambiguity about what to do once he tested positive. Burnstein said that the testing was a very difficult procedure and that the quarantine facility that the university is providing is also in a very bad condition. According to the University of Michigan’s website, while Michigan provides free testing to students on campus, students have to apply for a test and complete a preliminary examination before you can get a test.

Burnstein said he doesn’t think it’s the quickest process, noting that after filling out the preliminary form, he never actually received a response. He got a quick test from a center 45 minutes away instead. Like other schools, Michigan’s research policy is focused on voluntary surveillance research, and the university president has said it’s more successful than routinely evaluating everyone. Still, the Graduate Employees’ Union of the university, representing more than 2,000 graduate student employees, has argued that the steps taken by the university are not adequate and have gone on strike to oppose the reopening plans.

After just two weeks, following numerous clusters and hundreds of incidents, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was forced to turn to remote classes. After facing thousands of cases, the University of Tennessee had to scramble to build more space for quarantine and isolation as more and more students became infected. I think topics like social events and putting an obligation on students to not act in a certain way have been given a lot of attention. But less attention was paid to the steps taken by the university to plan for the classes. Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the ‘Science’ family of academic journals, said that colleges and universities are being placed in an impossible role.

Thorp, former provost of Washington University in St. Louis and chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told CNN that you have so many constituencies that have so many different opinions. The administrators are seeking to overcome a gap between what the campus needs and what outside powers want, which just cannot be bridged. Looking at managers and placing the blame on them is quite simple, but they work in complex political environments. The state legislators receive part of their budgets from public schools, so they have to address those interests. On the other hand, many private schools have important, wealthy trustees, so they have to handle that. And the managers are the ones being forced into the spotlight during it all. If the campuses, without intervention from outside powers, could have acted purely on the public health knowledge they had.



Nikki Attkisson

With over 15 years as a practicing journalist, Nikki Attkisson found herself at Powdersville Post now after working at several other publications. She is an award-winning journalist with an entrepreneurial spirit and worked as a journalist covering technology, innovation, environmental issues, politics, health etc. Nikki Attkisson has also worked on product development, content strategy, and editorial management for numerous media companies. She began her career at local news stations and worked as a reporter in national newspapers.

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