The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion To save education, we must fight the broader pandemic

Students and faculty protest in-person classes for fall semester at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor on Wednesday.
Students and faculty protest in-person classes for fall semester at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor on Wednesday. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)
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TODAY, THERE are about 56.6 million primary and secondary school students in the United States, and about 20 million students are enrolled in colleges and universities. As the fall semester begins, they all stand at a precipice. We share the conviction of many educators, parents and public health experts that education must not be allowed to fall apart during the pandemic. But hopes are fast colliding with reality. Outbreaks at several universities suggest that schools everywhere must use extreme caution before going ahead with in-classroom schooling.

The experience of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is instructive. The university, with nearly 30,000 students, started classes Aug. 10. By Monday, 177 students had been isolated after testing positive for the coronavirus and another 349 were in quarantine because of possible exposure. The university had a strict mask mandate and asked students to practice social distancing; residence halls were reduced to less than 60 percent capacity; and fewer than 30 percent of total classroom seats were filled. But, partly due to social gatherings of students, infections soared; the first week, the campus health clinic saw the test positivity rate rise from 2.8 percent to 13.6 percent.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

On Monday, the university abruptly switched to online classes only. Mimi Chapman, the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty chair, told NPR after the announcement that the university had some of the best public health communications staff in the country. “If we can’t bring those resources to bear in the way that we did with a more successful result,” she said, “I think it should give every other large public university in the country pause before going forward.”

Similar reversals have occurred at Notre Dame and Michigan State. Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, said, “The virus is a formidable foe. For the past week, it has been winning.” Indeed, no one should lose sight of the facts: Without a vaccine or therapy, the virus is relentless and opportunistic; people spread it when they congregate. The infection of a relative few students, perhaps from partying, can disrupt an entire institution. We don’t think college students are going to stop congregating, whether they are on or off campus. But young people must take on board the lesson that they are not immune.

Fully remote instruction is not realistic. Science students need to conduct labs and clinics in person. Testing, and more testing, offers one important strategy for schools that must proceed. If students can be screened often enough to detect and isolate those who are sick, there is a chance others on campus can do their best learning in good health. But all schools — from kindergarten through graduate programs — are woven into the society they serve, so they are threatened by the failure of the United States to control the virus. Only a better job of fighting the pandemic will enable schools to do a better job of educating.

Read more:

Joseph E. Aoun: The virus isn’t going away. That’s why campuses need to reopen.

Richard J. Light: There’s never been a college year like this one. Here’s how to make the most of it.

Megan McArdle: Don’t just look at covid-19 fatality rates. Look at people who survive — but don’t entirely recover.

Alexandra Petri: Cake, in the manner of the Trump administration’s school reopening guidance 

Leana S. Wen: We can’t open schools safely if we don’t face facts about the risks