The University of Southern California recently decided to keep the campus closed for most students after first inviting them all back. California State University, the largest four-year university system in the nation, is going remote, and now so is Scripps College, a private liberal-arts school in Claremont, Calif.
President Trump has been calling for all schools to open for all students, but Scripps College President Lara Tiedens says in this post that that won’t work for her school.
By Lara Tiedens
The covid-19 pandemic has wreaked unprecedented havoc on our society, attacking the health, finances, and social fabric of individuals and families, and disproportionately ravaging black and other communities of color. Trial runs by military academies and university athletic departments to reintroduce students to campuses have resulted in covid-19 outbreaks among teams and classmates. The average age of those testing positive continues to drop across the country based on the spike in cases among a younger cohort. It is amid these conditions that college presidents across the country are considering whether to invite students back to their campus for an in-person academic and residential program.
As the president of Scripps College, my board, leadership team and I have decided to move to remote-only learning for our campus during the fall semester. This is a difficult decision, one we recognize many institutions may eschew based on their individual circumstances and realities.
We are choosing to make data- and values-based decisions informed by the critical public health situation in Los Angeles and the country, and to prioritize the health of our faculty, staff students, and the broader community that surrounds us. Although there are pressures to invite students back to campus, we are choosing not to put members of our communities (both those who comprise our campuses, and those around us) at increased risk for the sake of finances, reputation, or conformity.
From our Southern California location, we are seeing virulence, transmission rates and hospitalizations for covid-19 at the same level or greater than existed in March 2020, when we chose to move to remote courses.
And with no vaccines yet introduced; little evidence of successful treatments; national supply chain concerns for tests, testing supplies and reagents; and evidence that at any age, congregate living situations are one of the most conducive to viral spread, even our best efforts to keep those we are charged with protecting away from unnecessary risk poses a public health threat. We represent an institution that focuses on social justice, civic responsibility, and the power of knowledge — this is our moment to live what we teach.
We hear the claim that the in-person campus experience should be prioritized to ensure we deliver the hallmarks of a liberal arts experience and to meet the educational and mental health needs of our community.
Yet the feedback from students who remained on campuses this spring suggests that confining students to their rooms with limited social interaction is isolating, stressful, and not conducive to their academic success or mental and emotional well-being. Students say they would like to return because they are worried about missing out on interactions with each other, which should give pause to those who think both that coming back to campus will be satisfying and that students will observe social distance or isolation protocols.
We know we have a better chance of meeting the experience-based expectations of our students by providing courses and faculty-student connections remotely as we did this past spring. We do not believe that the benefits of in-person interaction supersede the potential life and death consequences of gathering in person on campus.
And we know that the disruptions of a pivot from in-person to remote courses this fall, when positive covid-19 cases are again anticipated to spike, is not ideal for students’ learning nor for institutions’ reputation or finances.
I worry about how many students, staff, and faculty will be quarantined, isolated, sick, or worse before institutions pivot to remote learning. It isn’t unreasonable to expect that 5 percent of the campus population would test positive at the beginning of the year. And thus will begin the inevitable spread of the virus across campus. Residential campuses were designed to do many things, and do many things well, but they are not created or staffed for infectious-disease management and response.
The reality is that the anticipated in-person experiences planned for this fall can’t and won’t meet the expectations of our students and their families. For those who open in August, the idyllic experiences shared last fall during campus visits will be replaced with a necessarily sterile environment that must prioritize distance over interaction, with contact tracing, testing, and self-isolation overshadowing campus experiences.
Many of us who have dedicated our careers to higher education because of the transformational moments we experienced as students know that what was and is magical about this time almost always entails people interacting less than six feet apart. However, we are learning how to provide equivalent experiences remotely and to engage in ways we never imagined previously, and we can and will resume delivering those magical moments once it is safer to do so.
We know our decision may not reflect what some students and families really want. We understand and share their disappointment about yet another loss in a season that has been marked by frustration and grief. We do not look forward to the possibility of angry calls about our decision, but we prefer these to placing calls this fall to inform parents and partners of positive covid-19 test results or even more dire news.
In the midst of our uncertainty about the future, fears about the impact of the pandemic, and frustrations about racism and inequality, higher education must focus on our core mission — educating students. Our fall semester should be focused on our people, not plexiglass, and teaching, not covid-19 testing. Now is the time for campus leaders to bravely make the decisions that allow us to focus our fall efforts on enriching the student experience and reinforcing our value as well as our values.