A few years ago — no, it was almost eight months, but like everything else about 2020 it feels longer — we decided to reopen our university this fall. Like almost all hard calls, the choice had to be made with a less-than-ideal amount of information in hand. Experience warned us against procrastination; the operational difficulties of the task ahead clearly were going to require every possible day of planning and preparation.

We did reopen Purdue University in late August, and with great relief just completed a semester with more than 40,000 students taking courses on campus. More than two-thirds of their classes were either partially or totally in-person. Their organizations sponsored more than 17,000 events and meetings, two-thirds of those in-person. Our residence halls were 86 percent occupied and, while dining shifted to mainly outdoor and carryout modes, we provided tens of thousands of meals each day.

It was far from the typical resident experience, but our students’ educational progress continued uninterrupted.

I can only hope that they learned as much as the stewards of their university did in wrestling with the pandemic. It turned out that two-thirds of our faculty and staff preferred to work remotely, reducing their exposure to the possibility of infection. Like many enterprises today, we expect remote work to be a permanent feature for many employees even after the pandemic is over.

A particularly welcome finding was how thoroughly we were able to guard against viral spread in labs and classrooms. Through masking, distancing, daily disinfection, plexiglass shielding and other measures, not a single infection was traced to any encounter in one of our 784 classrooms. “Safe spaces” took on a different meaning at our school.

By far the most crucial learning involved a central factor in our original decision: that this particular virus, while very dangerous to the elderly and those with certain existing conditions, presents a threat to the young as close to zero as one sees in this life. Strongly suggested by the worldwide evidence available in the spring, eight months’ more data now makes this phenomenon decisively clear. People our students’ age represent 0.2 percent of covid-related deaths; their chance of dying from the disease even after infection is 1 in 20,000.

An American between ages 15 and 24 is 1.5 times as likely to die from heart disease, 2.5 times more likely from cancer, 11 times more likely from suicide and 21 times more likely to die from an accident, than from covid-19. Had the science not seemed persuasive on this in the spring, we would not have risked reopening. As it accumulated and strengthened globally, mercifully we saw it borne out in our community.

Of the 2,770 positive coronavirus test results for students during the semester, 82 percent were either asymptomatic or had only one minor symptom. Less than 1 percent rose above even the fourth level of a six-level severity index.

But the most gratifying lesson, and the one most essential to our navigating the semester safely, involved our students. Their compliance with the burdensome restrictions and impositions in what we called the Protect Purdue Pledge confounded predictions that student behavior would doom any reopening college to catastrophe.

Throughout the fall, students submitted to testing, tracing and quarantining as necessary. When found positive, they moved from in-person to online instruction and back again. They constantly reminded and encouraged one another to stick to the pledge. They observed and, if anything, over-complied with masking and distancing requests. One curious senior parked himself along a major campus corridor and tallied 94 percent of his schoolmates wearing masks outside on a breezy, sunny day.

The students adhered to the pledge so strictly for the best of reasons: to help and protect others. They knew full well how tiny the risks were to themselves. Their sacrifices were made for their vulnerable elders, and their fellow students, enabling the school to remain open.

I have stifled the temptation to write back to those who sent gracious messages labeling our reopening decision “crazy,” “stupid” or “delusional” (those are the more polite ones). But I might make an exception for those who directed their cynicism at our students. The critics deserve to know, as I knew from years of direct interaction with today’s young people, that an ability to act responsibly, along with a spirit of altruism, runs deep among them. I’m not imagining that we’re raising a generation of angels, but neither do I believe our Boilermakers are wholly atypical.

Next semester looks even tougher, with high infection rates in Purdue’s surrounding communities and new risks that, like many hospitals today, we might face shortages of essential staff. But one problem we won’t worry about is the behavior of our students. With a nod to the Who, the kids really are “alright.”

Mitch Daniels, a Post contributing columnist, is president of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana.

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