OPINION: Returning to campus this fall would be so much worse than you think

A coronavirus "bomb" with a lit fuse. The coronavirus is a grey circle with red and orange protein spikes on it. There is a black fuse leading out from the virus; the end of the fuse is in flames.
(Donnie TC Denome • The Student Life)

Rumors about what’s going to happen with the reopening of the Claremont Colleges this fall have reached a fever pitch. Pun intended. Earlier this week, TSL published leaked emails telling Harvey Mudd College faculty to prepare for “the most likely scenario” of Mudd implementing a “hybrid” instruction plan of in-person and online classes. The email also mentioned strict rules potentially restricting other 4C students to online-only Mudd classes and Mudd students to online-only classes at the other 4Cs. Many students have reacted negatively towards this news, with some criticizing Mudd’s proposed plan as being unreasonably isolationist.

As a Mudd student directly impacted by these decisions and a master’s of public health student at Claremont Graduate University, respectively, we are both concerned with the types of reactions we’ve seen. The COVID-19 pandemic has not died down, and it’s probably not going to before the start of the school year. States reopening and returning to “normal” have caused a spike in cases that now threatens to overwhelm the health system. 

Frankly, we are alarmed that our peers seem more concerned with returning to a now-almost unrecognizable “normal” than with the possible risks and outbreak a return to campus could cause. As much as we would both like things to get back to “normal” and for our lives to stop being the daily whirlwind of stress, fear and uncertainty that they are, we cannot recommend anything more than the most measured, cautious response. We say to our peers (and everyone else at the Colleges): please consider what could happen if we don’t take this seriously. This could — this will — be so much worse than you think.

Let’s look at Los Angeles County case counts since the 5Cs announced spring semester classes were going online on March 11. The situation isn’t improving. We don’t even have a sustained minor downturn of cases yet. In fact, as the state and country have started reopening, case counts have continued to increase to their worst numbers since the pandemic began.

If this is the state of things now, the situation may be much more dire if thousands of students return to campuses across the county in a few months and drastic action is not taken. Looking at historical examples, such as the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, a second wave of cases could be even worse than the first one, which doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon

Harvey Mudd isn’t being extreme or going rogue — they’re simply being cautious. Mudd is doing what it needs to in order to meet requirements from Los Angeles County and the California Department of Public Health, and the other Claremont Colleges will hopefully follow the same or similar measures. Whether the other 4Cs (and to some extent the graduate schools) implement similar measures proactively from the start of the semester, or reactively after there are confirmed cases on campus, remains to be seen.

Mudd’s potential plans are no more extreme than those published by other universities in California. Stanford University is only allowing half of the student body on campus. The California State University system — all 23 campuses — will be moving to a primarily online format with limited exceptions for classes that must be held in person. UC Irvine, similarly, plans for “almost all undergraduate courses [to] be delivered in a remote format in the fall quarter.” 

This won’t be the semester or the year you expected or deserve, and honestly it won’t be worth your money. We fully recognize that this will suck, no matter what happens, and we aren’t trying to sugar-coat this or act like everything will be fine. The issue isn’t whether or not the semester will be bad — it certainly will — but how bad it will be.

Don’t want to pay for this experience? Take a semester or a year off, if you can. Things will get back to a new normal eventually, but not this academic year, unless a miracle happens and we get a vaccine. If you don’t have the option of taking time off, then it’s time to start grappling with and accepting reality.

Life on campus, if we do end up being allowed back, will not be anything like a normal semester. Dorms are like landlocked cruise ships. Every year, colds and the flu spread around campus like wildfire; COVID-19 will be no different unless we put drastic measures into place. 

Thousands of cases have been traced back to clusters in congregate settings — places where people gather in large numbers and in close proximity for short or extended periods. Prisons, factories and nursing homes have become central points of this epidemic. College dorms are no different.

While the general health and youth of most college students may be somewhat of a protective factor, remember that there are plenty of older, disabled, immunocompromised or otherwise high-risk members of the 7C and surrounding Claremont community. A fall return, even with the strictest of precautions, could be deadly for many people.

According to Mudd’s official COVID-19 response communication, Los Angeles County defines an outbreak as three or more individuals. If that number is shocking to you, it should be, but it’s also a good number. Evidence suggests that 40 to 45 percent of people infected with the novel coronavirus have no symptoms, and mild symptoms of COVID-19 are generally non-specific, along the lines of cold or flu symptoms.

A study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases also showed that the R0 — the average number of people each person sick with COVID-19 will infect — is 5.7. These factors mean that for every positive case the Colleges are aware of, there are almost certainly more spreading around campus undetected. 

The 5Cs may be forced to close again during fall semester. Maybe this would happen as a preventive measure, like in the spring, which would likely result in the same haphazard mess that happened in March.

It would still be better than the other, much more likely option: the schools closing once there already is an outbreak on campus, perhaps after being forced to do so by Los Angeles County. To send thousands of potentially infected students home to living situations across the world would be disastrous.

We do not see this as a matter of if there is an outbreak on campus, but when and to what degree. Even in the most closed and isolated scenario, it only takes one sick person to start a chain reaction. This is a ticking time bomb and at this point, defusing the bomb isn’t an option. The only options are how well we protect ourselves and each other when it goes off. 

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Given all this, one might question why the campuses are trying to open at all. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that finances are a factor, but there are other more important factors as well.

There are some classes that require being in-person, like engineering labs or studio art courses. Half a semester online proved that even the best online solutions can’t recreate the actual experience of working in a lab or art studio. These are integral parts of many majors, and students in those majors shouldn’t be forced to go another semester with substandard substitutes or lack of these classes at all. 

Even for those not in the aforementioned courses, physically being in an academic setting might be better than their current housing situation. For many students, the stress of an additional two months at home with family, on top of their summer, was difficult. To stretch that into an entire extra semester or year with no other option would be torturous for some.

Other students need a place to go, or aren’t able to take classes at their current location. They may need to leave an unstable housing situation, and the dorms provide a more stable option. Financial aid for many students is tied to living on campus — and without that financial aid, some may not be able to afford housing costs or tuition at all.

It’s also unclear whether international students will be able to attend online classes from outside the U.S. and maintain their visa status. While temporary changes were made for the spring so that immigration statuses remained unchanged regardless of location, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program has yet to announce whether these changes apply to the fall semester. International students also bear the brunt of time zone difference-induced problems in attending online classes.

On top of student concerns, many staff jobs depend on student presence on campus, including dining hall staff and facilities workers. Unlike many faculty, administrators and other staff members, these staff members cannot work from home. Their very livelihoods hang in the balance.

The colleges could still pay these workers if students aren’t back on campus, but given the financial situation, we fear they wouldn’t or would cut worker salaries significantly. Already, there is evidence of Scripps offering a “voluntary separation” deal for eligible staff members, giving them an option to “voluntarily terminate their employment,” according to The Scripps Voice.

Finally, for many students, being close to their friends, even six feet apart, is worth it. This is not as quantifiable a benefit as some of the other reasons for reopening, but we realize the psychological impact of being back on campus and having any small semblance of normalcy may mean the world for some.

Despite the risks of doing so, we know colleges are trying to reopen for many valuable, important reasons. For many people, the experience of being back on campus, even with social activities greatly curtailed, is worth the risk — we are not disputing that.

But even if students are back on campus with some level of cross-campus contact, some things are absolutely going to change. We anticipate that any sort of mass gathering outside of essential academic settings and campus jobs will be prohibited. Parties, social gatherings and in-person extracurricular activities are almost certainly going to be shuttered. 

Further limitations on student-athletes are also well-warranted. The SCIAC “affirmed its commitment” to holding games this fall, but any contact with teams from other schools is inherently risky. Already across the U.S., attempted college sports practices have resulted in outbreaks.

Risk of outbreaks apply to band, choir, orchestra, dance groups, a cappella groups and other in-person activities as well. A two-and-a-half hour long choir practice in Washington State resulted in over 50 percent of the attendees catching COVID-19, including three hospitalizations and two deaths. In-person gatherings beyond what is absolutely necessary to keep the campus running are deathly inadvisable.

The campuses will be much quieter, more subdued, more sterile. They have to be. The other alternatives are not having students on campus at all or mass illness. 

Don’t come back to campus expecting to party with friends. Don’t come back to campus expecting to get within six feet of most of your friends any time soon. Expect to spend a lot more time in your dorm and a lot less time across campuses, if the campuses even allow cross-campus contact.

So prepare yourself for the announcements that are to come this week, and prepare yourself for the fall. Mudd’s proposed solution is by no means the worst or most extreme outcome.

Carson Herness HM ’21 is a computer science student from Wausaukee, Wisconsin, who despite being very introverted, wants nothing more than to be among friends right now.

Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20, CG ’21 is a master’s in public health student from Sunnyvale, California, who would very much like a hug from someone they don’t live with. 

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