… and Expecting Different Results

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College party with 400 people shut down in North Carolina (Houston Chronicle)
Miami University parent files class action lawsuit over tuition charged for blended courses amid coronavirus (Cincinnati Business Courier)

My alma mater started its fall semester last week, and they’ve already confirmed twenty-seven cases of COVID-19 there, according to what passes for a newspaper in my hometown. Absent so many similar stories from campuses and schools across the nation these past few weeks, this might have garnered more attention. Instead, though, this is quickly becoming so normalized that no one is questioning whether or not someone will pull the plug on the remaining reopenings to be attempted in the coming weeks; now we seem to be in another typically American contest to see which campus can have the biggest outlawed party, or which one can get the most new confirmed pandemic cases, or which one will have the highest number of COVID-19 fatalities at the end of the year. (No one will talk openly about that last one, but you know people are thinking about it.)

Some recently-reopened campuses have already moved back to online learning, of course, and my social media feeds are currently filled with posts from college students elsewhere who are complaining about their schools allegedly planning this move all along, and only luring the students to in-person classes briefly enough to extort full tuition money from them. I hesitate to speak for any institution (even the one I teach at), and I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying to say these students’ anger isn’t valid (because it is), but colleges and universities across America are facing huge enrollment shortages right now for a variety of reasons. Some potential students decided to take this academic year off because they only want to attend an institution when it’s business-as-usual there. Other potential students can’t come because the economic crisis being caused by the pandemic is preventing them and/or their families from coming up with the money they need. Despite all this, many colleges and universities (including my own) spent a lot of money over the summer to buy the equipment necessary to make in-person teaching during the pandemic feasible. I doubt that any institution would make those kinds of expenditures if they weren’t fully committed to finding a way to make in-person teaching work.

The desire of some potential college and university students to take this coming year off is more than understandable. I firmly believe that the social aspects of being a young college student on campus are as important as the things that students learn in their classes, and those social opportunities just aren’t going to be present like they normally would be, except for the handful of selfish students who are holding these inexcusable parties both on and off campus. Keep in mind that incoming first-year college and university students this year not only had to deal with highly-altered high school graduation ceremonies (if they had ceremonies at all), but also didn’t get to attend their senior proms and really enjoy this summer. There’s a built-in level of frustration there that none of us involved in higher education can afford to forget about.

Some campuses still haven’t begun their fall semesters, though; our semester here is set to begin nine days from today, and we are still, as of the time I type this, planning to attempt in-person classes. Lots of other colleges and universities are scheduled to start their terms even later than we are. As all these stories of other institutions aborting their reopening attempts cross our news feeds, though, and as national guidance on these issues continues to be a total catastrophe, a new question has to be asked: Will all the horror stories coming out from some colleges and universities cause others to cancel their reopening plans, and move to online-only instruction before those first classes even start?

I trust my bosses to make the right decisions for our campus, and as I’ve said before, you couldn’t pay me enough money to make me want to assume the responsibilities they’re currently undertaking. Then again, it’s easy for me to say that when all but one of my classes will be meeting online, and I’ll be holding that last class outside for as long as I possibly can. As someone who pays my bills with my salary here, I also have a far different relationship to the university than the students who are paying my salary (and those of everyone else who works here). I’ve often said that I wish I could be a college student for the rest of my life, but if I were a college student right now, I’m not sure if even I could come up with the enthusiasm needed to brave the risks that in-person classes entail in the middle of a raging pandemic.

Maybe the fact that we’re the smallest of the University of Wisconsin campuses means that we’ll be less likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak here. Maybe the care that everyone who works here puts into their job will mean that we won’t be dealing with the same problems that institutions in other states are dealing with right now. I want to believe those things, but I’d be lying if I said that I feel totally secure about holding in-person classes this coming semester. I have a responsibility to keep my students as safe as possible, and even with our campus doing everything possible to ensure that safety, the growing number of campuses whose reopenings aren’t going that well is making me wonder if any college or university campus reopening safely right now is even possible. Nine days is more than enough time for another slew of horror stories to pop up on campuses across America, and I have to believe that we’re in for another surge of pandemic cases here over the last months of summer. We’ll find out soon enough. I just hope I live that long.

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