In 2005 in response to the avian flu outbreak, I was part of a senior leadership team at a local university modeling responses to an outbreak of a global pandemic and its impact on our campus environment. Since the outbreak would impact more than the campus, the local communities would be taxed responding to the needs of their own constituents and could not be relied upon for hospital beds, additional medical staff, food supplies, etc., leaving the college to fend for itself. We looked at the feasibility of converting athletic buildings to hospitals and dining refrigerators into portable morgues. We talked about the need to cross train healthy staff to be able to handle essential services, like food preparation, cleaning, and basic health care. And we talked about pivoting more than 3000 courses from in class to online without disruption. It was a bleak experience, to say the least.
The obvious conclusion from this exercise was that our best response was to anticipate the event and, in early stages, empty the campus. This thinking prevailed in March of this year when it became obvious that COVID-19 could not be contained and was heading our way. Colleges were early to implement the shutting down campuses before they were forced to shut down or, worse, manage a serious outbreak pretty much on their own. So, knowing this, why do colleges want to reopen this fall knowing that a campus outbreak is possible if not likely?
The prime motivation is that the alternative looks worse. With more than 4000 post-secondary institutions in the country dependent upon tuition for most of their revenue, a “gap year” may be an option for many students, but not for many colleges. There are too many sunk costs for schools, even in a year where many services are closed, and classes are taught online. The greatest risk for schools, however, is to lose their “niche” for admissions, a disastrous occurrence that could be precipitated by skipping a year for those currently enrolled and deferring new students for another year. Instead many colleges will walk the tightrope between being closed or dealing with a campus outbreak. This involves reduced contact with other students, medical safeguards involving temperature scans, masks, and isolation spaces, and creating a host of online activities and services including classes, meals to go, and restrictions related to mobility and interactions especially with non-students. Will this be the same experience as a year ago? Not even close. But while it may pale in comparison, it perhaps will be perceived as way better than spending another year living with parents and spending 15-20 hours daily staring at a screen.
But know this: campuses will shut down quickly at the first sign of a spike on or near the campus, and the fall semester may end before the first snowfall. The silver lining: colleges are better prepared to deliver online educational content than they were a year ago, and a combination of virtual and experiential reality may be in store for us in many aspects of life post-pandemic.
Paul J Stanton, M.Ed.
Former Dean of Student Services