Colleges and universities should only reopen when it is safe to do so

The current August reopening plans of the University of North Carolina campuses are a serious threat not only to the campus communities but also to the state. As of now, the coronavirus has sickened more than 3.4 million Americans, killed more than 136,000, and is spreading at 60,000 new cases a day, leading the world in pandemic disaster.

Meanwhile, here in North Carolina, the spread of the virus continues to accelerate as deaths approach 1,600 and records in daily case totals and hospitalizations continue to be broken.

At such a moment, the reopening of college campuses cannot be done safely without comprehensive, systematic and frequent testing – an approach for which there are no current plans. The UNC System argues that it is following CDC guidelines and those guidelines do not mandate testing. A July 8 New York Times article, however, makes it clear that the CDC responds to directives from the President, who has said testing is too costly and unnecessary. Furthermore, the U.S. has been following CDC guidelines from the outset with the result of the continuing spread of the disease and the world’s worst death toll. Even Europe has closed its borders to Americans because of our failure. The CDC is not sufficient.

The countries that have successfully contained the crisis have relied on extensive testing, which is the most important measure to prevent asymptomatic carriers from infecting others. Carl Bergstrom, a leading expert in the field, has argued that testing for pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic cases is a, “highly effective means of disease control,” if coupled with contact tracing.  He and others have stated that the CDC held back in recommending because of a lack of resources.

The university has taken steps – redesigning shared spaces and mandating masks – although the efficacy of such measures with thousands of young, energetic, and invulnerable-feeling young adults, is questionable. With residence halls and shared apartments, and the college parties, drinking, drugs, and sex to which they will assuredly play host, inevitable transgressions will turn thousands of students into carriers of the coronavirus. Without testing, they will spread the virus rapidly.

A July 4 New York Times article pointed out that, “The coronavirus is finding new victims worldwide, in bars and restaurants, offices, markets and casinos, giving rise to frightening clusters of infection that increasingly confirm what many scientists have been saying for months: The virus lingers in the air indoors, infecting those nearby.” And what better indoor space for the virus to linger than the campus classroom and shared living spaces.

Many students and faculty prefer face-to-face teaching; it is time tested and effective. However, if students and faculty get sick and die, pedagogy won’t matter.

The university has two choices, teach face-to-face and employ extensive testing, or go online. The first is expensive and the university system is not awash with money. In any case, either or both the state and federal governments must step in with funds for comprehensive testing, which is financially beyond the reach of the university. The Federal government in particular has the resources and the obligation to save lives and protect the educational rights of America’s young. If, however, the money is not forthcoming, then the university must make the difficult decision to go online. It should mandate this immediately rather than wait until the death count rises.

Going online is not without its own costs. With a long-term decline in state funding, the campuses are increasingly tuition dependent and rightly fearful that enrollments will drop if they go online. Additionally, the university is a driving force of the state’s economy, both statewide and in the communities where campuses are located. No physical students, no money.

These problems have the same answer as testing, the state and federal governments must step in to financially save institutions that are central to how this society functions and which are responsible for much of America’s wealth and economic growth. America’s productivity edge is reliant on the knowledge, science and technology that universities produce. That’s a fact. Without universities, say goodbye America.

The pedagogical arguments are more complex, but when human beings persist at things, they do them better. Online education can be improved enough until the day we have solved (with the science generated by universities) the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile, university authorities must make a life or death decision. If they want to teach face-to-face, mandate comprehensive testing. If they can’t implement the testing, go online. Any other choice will spread mass illness and death, as the recent past has proven.

Jeffrey Bortz teaches history at Appalachian State University, Thomas McLamb is a graduate student there.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.