We attend Amherst College, one of the first schools to make such a move — even though there had been no coronavirus infections detected on campus. Amherst has been joined by Harvard, Georgetown University, the University of California at Berkeley and many others in stopping in-person classes for varying lengths of time.
Thirty minutes after the announcement, students with a thousand questions thronged a student government meeting that normally would have been sparsely attended. And later, a sit-in at the library stretched on until the early morning. None of us knew what to make of the email that had upended our lives. Instead of worrying about exams and homework, now we were scrambling to book last-minute travel home.
There were and still are plenty of misgivings about the hasty switch to online classes. For seniors doing research and writing theses, or any student in a lab class, moving online is nearly impossible. The same is true for students in dance, music and studio art. Even when specific equipment or physical proximity isn’t required, teaching and learning will inevitably be less effective over video.
Amherst College President Biddy Martin’s March 9 announcement had made the school’s concerns clear: “We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it. The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great.”
That’s understandable — no doubt Amherst and the other colleges switching to online classes believe they aren’t equipped to handle a coronavirus outbreak on campus. But they’re missing the point: The local communities that the schools are sending thousands of students back to also largely don’t have the resources to deal with an outbreak. The schools have simply chosen to opt out, leaving students to fend for themselves, and shift the responsibility elsewhere.
These residential colleges are also undermining much of their own rationale for existing. They are meant to be havens for young people, home-like places with established routines and networks meant to foster learning. They are also sanctuaries for low-income and marginalized students who might not have stable homes to return to on short notice. Students without computers or broadband will be unable to access online courses once they begin. Perhaps worst of all, some international Amherst students may be unable to return to campus, when it eventually reopens, because of the Trump administration’s recently expanded travel ban.
To its credit, Amherst’s administration has set up a petition process for students to ask to stay on campus, and the student government is trying to reimburse some fees to help pay for travel. But the default is eviction. Communications from the school this week indicate that refunding the cost of room and board — but not tuition — is being considered.
It is easy for colleges to look at their budgets and resources and decide that they cannot risk a pandemic on campus. But when state and local governments do the same, they don’t have the option to banish their residents. These colleges could have set an example — playing an educational role — by showing how to manage a coronavirus outbreak, but they have chosen not to.
Just over half of Amherst students live in states where coronavirus emergencies have been declared. When we leave, we will travel home through airports and bus stations filled with people from around the world — increasing our likelihood of infection and exposing our friends and families to greater risk.
The colleges may have had student safety in mind when deciding to close their campuses, but their moves have the unfortunate appearance of trying to avoid liability. At Amherst, the decision about student safety was made without consulting the students themselves. We know that responding to the threat of a covid-19 outbreak would have required big changes, such as moving classes online even if we remained on campus, and canceling some or all extracurricular events. But none of us was prepared to deal with a mass eviction that ultimately is unlikely to make anyone safer.