[This column originally appeared in the Charleston Post and Courier, and we thank Dr. Steere-Williams for his kind permission to republish it here.]
The fall is usually a magical time for those of us in higher education. As a professor at the College of Charleston I relish it. A new academic year brings back old friends, colleagues, and students, and we welcome freshmen eager for new experiences inside and outside of the classroom. It’s an electric time when campuses buzz with a vibrant and addictive energy. Not this year.
Well-intentioned universities across the country have reopened face-to-face instruction, hoping to provide students with an authentic college experience while mitigating the spread of the biggest global pandemic we have faced in over a hundred years. They have done so through media campaigns and mask policies. Many universities have already failed. The gamble of fall classes is not working.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the center of a cluster outbreak of COVID-19 shortly after reopening. Down the road in Raleigh, North Carolina State had the same thing happen. Both universities have quickly pivoted to virtual learning for the fall. The safety of students, faculty, and staff is not a guarantee right now.
It has not been for a lack of trying. Folks in higher education have been diligently working for months to try to make college campuses safe. The College of Charleston, for example, has implemented a mandatory mask policy, a partial testing protocol, and a purchased a slew of campus technologies to bring us “Back on the Bricks.” Faculty have been preparing all summer—off contract—for both face-to-face and virtual classes. After months of living through a global pandemic, students want to come back.
We all do. Local campus leaders like Jeremy Turner, the President of the Student Government Association, have been actively getting the word out through a “Student Pledge” that individual behaviors are paramount to keeping us all safe. I am proud of our campus community.
But the experience of other universities the past two weeks has shown that a combination of conscientious planning and wishful thinking is not going to work. We can’t blame undergraduate students, or young people in general, for spreading COVID-19. We need to take collective responsibility and collective action.
Institutions like the College of Charleston are faced with an almost impossible situation. Reopen the College and hope and pray we don’t become the next UNC, NC State, or Notre Dame. Or go virtual all semester and risk the dire financial consequences of students potentially dropping out and universities footing the bill for housing, food vendors, parking, and reduced tuition.
Framing the impossible decision to reopen the College as a zero-sum game misses another critical component; the City of Charleston. Bringing back 10,000 students, and hundreds of faculty and staff has the potential for a massive impact on our community. On our local economy and on our collective health. Community infection rates will likely surge if campus cases surge. MUSC and Roper will become over-burdened. The social impacts of reopening the College will fall the hardest on the already disadvantaged, particularly urban, impoverished African Americans. That’s been part of Charleston’s history with epidemic disease, and is part of the social determinants of health.
Most of us hoped that rates of COVID-19 would drop over the summer- that high heat and humidity would knock down the virus. We looked for leadership at federal, state, and local levels to mitigate the spread of the disease through public health awareness, social distancing, and the enforcement of mask wearing to “flatten the curve.” But that has not happened; Charleston has been a global hot-spot for weeks.
President Hsu at the College of Charleston is set to make a final decision on whether to reopen campus for face-to-face learning later this week. It’s time that university leaders make the right decision for our students, our staff, and our community, and keep the College virtual this fall. This is the only ethical decision that will keep us safe. But it does have broader implications, and public schools and universities will need help from the state legislature, who has for years steadily defunded public education. As a historian of pandemics I don’t want my beloved school to fall on the wrong side of history, and to unnecessarily risk the lives of thousands of Charlestonians. We can do better, and we must to better.