OPINION: Online school: you can run, but you can’t hide

Laptop and books on a desk
Pitzer College, Pomona College and Scripps College have decided to make their fall semesters completely online, while Harvey Mudd College and Claremont McKenna College are looking into hybrid options, pending county and state approval. (Courtesy: Kari Shea via Wikimedia Commons)

With Pitzer College’s announcement yesterday that it will be joining Pomona College and Scripps College in going completely online for the fall, many 5C students will be taking classes all through Zoom. The ones who may not be — students at Harvey Mudd College and Claremont McKenna College — will still likely be taking some online classes. At any rate, the 5C campuses will be a ghost town next semester. 

As a result, many students are considering taking a break from school, which has administration everywhere frantically recalculating budgets. However, I think that the popular reasoning behind taking a gap semester or year is too optimistic about the trajectory of the virus.

A gap semester boils down to the idea that online school is bad, and that by taking some time off, you can skip online school. This assumes that college will be back to normal sometime soon: next spring or fall. I don’t think this will happen — and therefore I think you won’t significantly reduce your Zoom education by taking a break.

There are two possibilities for how we get back to normal, and the first of which is contact-tracing and masks to the point where we practically eradicate the virus (similar to countries like South Korea).

The U.S. had the chance to social-distance the virus into oblivion and (for whatever reason) we didn’t. With more cases than ever, if Americans don’t want to wear masks and social-distance now, it’s likely we won’t to the degree necessary to stop the virus. It’s too late. Residential life would only make it worse. Even college football teams, with scholarships and careers on the line, cannot manage it

The second possibility is a vaccine. Several vaccines are in development — the government is throwing gobs of grant money at a select few pharmaceutical companies that have promising candidates (to their shareholders’ delight). The most optimistic, wildest predictions of a widely available vaccine put it in early 2021. Vaccines generally take decades to develop, and not for lack of effort: the HIV vaccine is probably worth billions but still hasn’t been invented after several decades. It’s not unlikely that the development of the coronavirus vaccine will take significantly longer than several more months.

But let’s imagine everything happens to go well and one of the vaccines being studied turns out to be The One. We have a vaccine by summer of 2021. Next comes manufacturing. People are trying to be one step ahead of the virus in this, funding factories for vaccines yet to be proven effective. But vaccine factories aren’t like normal factories for, say, face shields. They’re tailor-made high-tech investments that need to meet exacting safety standards and generally take years to build. And since the leading candidates are mRNA-based vaccines, which have never before been made for humans, these factories are breaking ground in more ways than one.

Also, we have to remember that even if it’s an American company that discovers the vaccine, other countries will need it. Many of these countries can’t afford to spend billions on vaccine factories. Public health authorities will have to triage demand, just like they have for masks and respirators. And it would be absurd to prioritize distribution to American college students.

These are just the big problems. There are numerous smaller but still crucial ones standing in the way of those pre-2020 halcyon days.

For one, FDA regulations are there for a reason. And while I have no doubt that everyone involved is taking the utmost caution in human trials, it is inherently risky to take a process that normally takes decades and compress it to some months. 

One of the only cases of an unsafe modern vaccine was the dengue fever vaccine that officials in the Philippines rushed to distribute in 2017. The authorities were charged with the deaths of 10 children, but the estimated death toll is about 600 children. And not only did the vaccine contribute to the deaths of hundreds, but concerns over its safety caused vaccine confidence in general in Philippine parents to drop from 82 percent in 2015 to 21 percent in 2018. I’m not saying that the coronavirus vaccine will be unsafe, but it will require stringent care on the part of already-overwhelmed scientists and policy makers.

Also, the vaccine has to be affordable. This is a problem if it’s made by an American company, since America has quite powerful intellectual property laws and quite terrible health care. 

And finally, people have to actually get the vaccine. You’d think everyone would be foaming at the mouth to get it, but in a recent Reuters poll of 4,500 Americans, 25 percent said (bafflingly) that they aren’t interested.

But what I really want to talk about is how this bears on the big question: whether to enroll in school next semester. I, like many of my peers, think it’s galling that I have to pay the same tuition to learn from a computer. I, like many of my peers, think that if I spend another semester online, it’ll be a waste of my sharply limited time in Claremont. I, like many of my peers, think that online school is but a shell of what I signed up for: the superficial academic skeleton remains, but the vital flesh and blood of student life wastes away.

Yet to take a gap semester or year in response to these reasons is to believe that at some point in the near future we’ll be able to go back to school and have kickbacks and clubs and sports. I don’t think that this is likely. The earliest possible date for a vaccine is spring 2021, and so the earliest possible date for a normal semester is fall 2021 (unless we decide to raise the acceptable level of death caused by hordes of virulent kids converging in Claremont). But spring or even fall 2022 seems a lot more realistic.

In this case, to take a break would be only to delay the inevitable two, three or four semesters of online learning. I’m still not sure whether I’ll take a gap semester or year or not, but that’s because I’m a rising sophomore and have six semesters left. There’s hope of going back on campus somewhere in my future (even though it’s likely to be a nightmare of social distancing rules). But if I were an upperclassman — especially if I were a rising senior — I’d just get it over with and go to school.

Yes, online school sucks. And yes, I miss Claremont dearly. But the world’s turned upside down. All we can do is wait for a vaccine, and remember that the ultimate point of the liberal arts is to prepare us for anything. I only hope that we can still get that education online. 

Andy Han PO ’23 is a philosophy and computer science student from Cincinnati, Ohio. He got Disney Plus just for Hamilton. 

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