Colleges navigate the uncertain world of a pandemic, as students and faculty fear for their safety

Emilee Geist

The University of Notre Dame had a plan it thought would allow it to safely welcome students back to campus during the pandemic. But then everything went south; tests were nowhere near as available as planned, and the positivity rate climbed as the first week of classes, starting Aug. 10, continued. With the weekend came what public health officials warned about: parties. Reports cited at least two off-campus gatherings held over the weekend as the source of 80 new confirmed cases. The university promptly switched to remote learning for the next two weeks, letting students remain on campus as the administration figures out what to do next. How many other universities will go the way of Notre Dame?

Universities have suffered staggering losses in revenue due to the pandemic, and they know that bringing students back would at least help alleviate the financial pressure. But many are struggling with how to safely bring students, faculty and staff back to campus. Two weeks ago, members of the University of Georgia community gathered at the campus in Athens and staged a “die-in” protest outside university president Jere Morehead’s office, speaking out against the university’s plans to reopen the campus for in-person learning in the fall and asking for added safety measures. The state of Georgia is experiencing an expanding spread of the virus, and protesters expressed fear for the safety of the university community, brandishing signs that read, “We are not dispensable.”

Placards advise physical distancing guidelines while directing incoming freshmen moving into a dorm at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Placards advise physical distancing guidelines while directing incoming freshmen moving into a dorm at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Many universities are planning to have students return to campus for the fall semester in some capacity and will implement both in-person and online classes in an effort to provide a safe approximation of the college experience in the age of COVID-19. According to Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative, which tracks the plans of about 3,000 universities, 959 institutions are fully or primarily online, 460 are providing a hybrid experience, 657 will be fully or primarily in person, 771 have yet to be determined and 164 are listed as “other.”

Similar to the University of Georgia, Boston University students and faculty gathered to protest the university’s plans for the upcoming semester, calling for the school to allow any employees who can work from home to do so, equip all members of the university with free PPE and provide free testing for residents of nearby neighborhoods. Students and faculty are concerned about the risk that comes with the university’s Learn From Anywhere plan, a hybrid model that includes both remote and in-person classes.

In an interview with Yahoo News, Gavin Benke, a senior lecturer at the university, listed “the pedagogical soundness of the plan” and “safety” as his two main concerns, explaining that course planning has been made difficult by the university’s implementation of a hybrid learning model.

“I’m sure stress levels are going to be pretty high for everyone,” he said, and “given all of these issues, I just don’t see how we are going to have a productive discussion about anything.” He acknowledges that hybrid models can work, but believes a successful hybrid class “requires a bigger investment in the technology and training.” 

Benke admits that many students found remote learning difficult last semester, but he blames the suddenness of the change. “The move online in the middle of March was really sudden. Faculty had less than a week to make the adjustment, and there was a lot of learning as you go.” He maintains that an online semester in which professors are given the proper amount of time to prepare their courses would be far more workable.

In terms of safety, the university has been upgrading its HVAC systems, and will implement social distancing protocols and provide a health monitoring app. It will also test upon arrival, with continuous, categorical testing afterward; professors who teach on campus are split between two top categories (BU has a testing program based on four categories), so Benke will be getting tested once a week. But he says that some older buildings lack HVAC systems, and considering the number of people returning to campus, as well as the university’s refusal to supply PPE, “there’s really no way to keep the campus safe.” Benke said he has not been told what protocols the university will follow if a student tests positive. 

“If one of my students tests positive, will I, along with all of my students, have to quarantine for two weeks? Will all of their roommates? All of the professors and students in their other classes? It just seems like even one positive test result would freeze things for a lot of people.

“As of right now, it does not seem like faculty will be told if a student in one of our classes tests positive because they are not considered close contacts.”

Beyond the campus community, Benke is equally concerned for the health of the greater Boston area. “Beyond teaching at BU, I live in Boston. … There are going to be more people on the T [subway], more people in grocery stores and so on.”

The same concerns are being felt at other colleges. At the University of Miami, professor Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel, who has been outspoken in the past about the university’s failure to provide a safe environment for faculty and staff, continues to struggle with the administration. While the university has allowed students the choice of learning from home or returning to campus, it has required that most faculty, except those considered at risk per CDC guidelines, return to campus.

“[The students] pay for an education — their safety and health matters,” Martínez-San Miguel told Yahoo News. “We work to deliver an education, but our safety and our expertise as pedagogues does not have value [to the administration].”

Martínez-San Miguel, like Benke, expressed frustration about the hybrid teaching model, worrying that professors will be overworked and students will be “unsatisfied” with “an inferior teaching and learning experience.” 

One Revolution, consisting of residents of the Somerville and Medford, Mass., communities, protest outside Tufts University president Anthony Monaco's house in Medford on Aug. 18. (David L. Ryan/Boston Globe via Getty Images)
One Revolution, consisting of residents of the Somerville and Medford, Mass., communities, protest outside Tufts University president Anthony Monaco’s house in Medford on Aug. 18. (David L. Ryan/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Martínez-San Miguel and other members of the Miami chapter of the American Association of University Professors approved a statement recently asserting faculty members’ right to “design [their] course content and mode of instruction as best meets the needs of [their] students” during the pandemic.

Some deans at the university, Martínez-San Miguel said, are even applying pressure to department chairs to hire instructors willing to teach only in-person classes.

A spokesman for the University of Miami described that assertion as “flatly untrue.” 

“The university has spent millions of dollars reengineering our campus with the health and safety of everyone in mind, and this process involved examining all aspects of campus operations,” the spokesman said, citing modifications to classrooms to allow for social distancing, and adding that “face coverings are mandatory at all times, hand sanitizers are readily available and signs have been erected to direct the flow of traffic in a way that minimizes direct contact.”

“Students had the option to take classes in three formats: in person, remotely or a hybrid combination of both in-person and remote instruction. The students showed a firm desire to be on campus, with 75 percent … choosing in-person or hybrid instruction.” 

Students have also been racked with uncertainty about returning to their campuses. Though they are eager for an on-campus experience of some sort, they understand that the situation provides a risk not only for the university community but for neighboring residents as well, and their experience could be a very limited one. 

Kristina Marie Wiltshire, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said she contracted and recovered from a “mild strain” of COVID-19 during the summer, which she spent in Madison. 

“I’m not super-concerned about my own safety,” she said. “However, there are many people among the students and faculty who may be impacted more severely by contracting the virus,” acknowledging the inherent risk for these people to share a public space with “tens of thousands” of students, faculty and staff.

“UW is doing the best it can,” Wiltshire said, but felt it might not be enough. The university is implementing a hybrid learning model, making in-person attendance optional, and hopes to maximize face-to-face interaction as safely as possible while implementing social distancing protocols, mass surveillance testing, modification of facility usage and contact tracing. Still, “there could easily be an outbreak in the dorms that ends up spreading to other areas of campus because we have to use the same buildings.” 

And the “college experience” includes parties and going out to bars. “Even if students follow all of the social distancing protocols in classes and other university facilities,” Wiltshire warned, “it is unlikely that there will be social distancing at social gatherings, which I’m 100 percent sure will be happening.”

At the same time, she is skeptical of how successful an online-only curriculum will be. Based on her experience last spring, she said, “the level of interaction with classmates and professors that is integral to a meaningful learning experience is pretty much nonexistent.” She remains hopeful for a successful fall semester on campus but is far from confident. 

“The biggest thing that bothers me,” Wiltshire said, “is that there is no change to the tuition prices even though the quality of education and facilities to use has been degraded considerably.”

One student who has similar trepidations about the upcoming semester is Caroline Schuermann, a Bucknell student serving as an orientation assistant at the Lewisburg, Pa., university.

“It seems as though Bucknell is very aware that COVID outbreaks are likely to happen frequently and rapidly,” she said, which could shut the campus down only weeks after classes begin. “Only then, however, will students have paid $34,000-plus for the semester’s tuition.” 

Schuermann believes that Bucknell is trying to keep the students safe; it has a “significant protocol” in place to address COVID-19, including sending two testing kits to students before their arrival and a plan to test all students every 10 days on a rotating cycle once classes start. But the university has already weathered one setback, when “the lab that processed these tests experienced unexpected delays,” which prevented students from moving into their dorms. 

Shortly after students began arriving, a member of the orientation staff was notified that they may have been exposed, which sent dozens of students into a 14-day quarantine hours after arriving. Bucknell has rented out a local hotel for quarantine purposes, but it does not have the capacity to quarantine “more than a few hundred at a school with 3,600 students,” Schuermann said.

A faculty member holds a sign as students and teachers protest in-person classes at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, on Aug 19. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)
A faculty member holds a sign as students and teachers protest in-person classes at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, on Aug 19. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)

Schuermann chose to return to campus in the hope of resuming a semblance of the campus life she loved, but she remains unsure of the future.

“I resent Bucknell,” she said, “for delaying the inevitable — returning home once again to online learning.” Had the university announced an online semester preemptively, Schuermann would have at least considered taking a gap year and returning to campus when normal life could resume.

While she acknowledges that she is “lucky to have food, shelter and [her] health” during this time, she knows that she lost “a significant portion of [her] college experience that [she] will never get back.”

While universities across the country are beginning to welcome back students and working to figure out how to best ensure the safety of the entire campus community, some have already begun classes, and students and faculty alike are struggling. 

“I am greatly concerned about the safety of students and faculty,” Duncan Donahue, a junior at Notre Dame, told Yahoo News, just days before the university paused classes. The university’s plan involved mass prematriculation testing, implementation of video technology in classrooms, social distancing protocols and increased sanitation efforts to keep the virus at bay. Despite its efforts, the university saw a substantial rise in positive cases: 222 of 1,287 individuals have tested positive since Aug. 3, a rate of 17.2 percent, up from 4.07 percent on the first day of classes. 

Donahue said students were ensured that there would be easy access to testing, but University Health Services is offering tests only to students showing symptoms. As an off-campus student, Donahue has to use off-campus testing sites that do not report results on the Notre Dame website. 

Donahue has already seen two friends denied testing. One had multiple virus-related symptoms but has been repeatedly denied despite arriving from L.A. The other had a girlfriend and close friend who tested positive, and reached out to University Health Services, but did not receive a response for 36 hours and was never told to quarantine before he was ultimately denied testing. 

“The university has utterly and completely failed to supply the testing required to safely operate,” Donahue told Yahoo News. 

Eileen Hunt Botting, a Notre Dame professor who has voiced her displeasure with the university’s decision to reopen in the past, has expressed concern for both students and members of the neighboring communities. 

“I worry especially about the first-year undergraduates on campus,” Hunt Botting said, during the period before the shutdown. “They are trying to make new friends while being packed to the brim in the dorms, which must be especially anxiety-ridden in the strange and dangerous time of COVID-19.” 

“Notre Dame has been promising ‘surveillance testing’ but has not delivered it yet,” she claimed. “[Surveillance testing] must be randomized, comprehensive and regularly done, covering the whole campus community,” she said, citing Harvard, Yale and the University of Illinois as “good models” of this approach.

Donahue and Hunt Botting said the administration appeared to prioritize tests for the football team. As of Aug. 12, according to Donahue, 270 tests had been administered since Aug. 3, and 160 of those went to the football program. 

A school spokesman said testing “has been available universally to anyone in the Notre Dame community since classes resumed on Aug. 10. Before that, Notre Dame tested all 12,000 students before their return to campus.  

“During the summer, football players were virtually the only students on campus, and they were tested then before the general student population arrived,” the spokesman said. “Since then, we have seen an increase in positive test results, causing the university, in consultation with local health officials, to pivot and change to online-only instruction for at least the next two weeks.”

As they confront their fears about the upcoming semester, students and faculty are doing the best they can. Gavin Benke’s colleague runs a blog in which he and other professors express their misgivings. Benke and some of his colleagues have begun a fund that co-workers can tap into “if and when they get sick.” Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel is continuing discussions with the university in hopes of ensuring a safer environment for faculty, staff and students, and Hunt Botting is continuing to advocate for Notre Dame to send students home as confirmed cases continue to rise. 

“The university put these young people in this dangerous position,” Hunt Botting told Yahoo News, “and now it’s the duty of the university to help them be as safe as possible by getting them out of the epicenter of a growing local epidemic.” She, in collaboration with staff, faculty and students at the university, has released a petition for “an Online Semester and Student Safety.”

All the while, they, as well as their students, are attempting to make the best of their situation as COVID-19 looms over their semesters.

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