Colleges and COVID-19 - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Colleges and COVID-19
Grove City College (Mark Schellhase/Wikimedia Commons)

“Well, you know I’m graduating this semester. This may be the last time I see you. Thanks for everything. I’m going to miss this class and everyone.” So said one of my students, Ashley, somberly at the end of class. Typically, that’s a goodbye I hear from seniors in mid-May, not mid-March. This one came in response to an early afternoon campus-wide email announcing that doors would be closing and students and professors alike would need to head home and begin transitioning to online learning. All would evacuate campus by 5:00 the next day, and classes would be postponed until the following week. The email hit during the middle of a busy class period, prompting animmediate reaction and eruption among students with eyes on laptops. One student shuffled anxiously in his seat, shoved his hand in the air, and looked at me.

“Yes, Sean?” I said.

“The college is shutting down,” he answered. “We just got the email.”

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Sean’s announcement prompted quite a reaction, as one would suspect. Our classroom discussion quickly shifted from analysis of an idiotic writing of Karl Marx to a sober analysis of what the remainder of the semester might look like at Grove City College and elsewhere.

What had prompted the college’s decision? Well, the CDC had just issued an alert urging a nationwide halt to gatherings of more than fifty people for the next eight weeks, citing the risk of coronavirus. Grove City College had seen no cases on campus, nor in our county (at that point). The college was hanging in there, but now the writing was on the wall, or at least on the CDC website.

One might think that students would have started celebrating. In fact, many nationwide did just that — thousands stormed beaches partying during spring break. North of us, at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, word came in that coronavirus had entered Erie County via an obliviously carefree (or stupid) student who went to — believe it or not — Europe for spring break, visiting several Level Three coronavirus risk countries.

I can tell you, however, that our students weren’t celebrating. There was a morose feeling on campus, particularly two days later as I looked out my office window from a virtually empty Hall of Arts and Letters at a campus with lovely, freshly mulched ornamental pear trees readying to bloom and welcome the spring, but not a student in sight to enjoy the experience. I was among a small group of faculty on campus that day for a training seminar on how to use something called Microsoft Teams in order to give lectures online.

Among the gloomy students was my second oldest son, who was getting ready to graduate. This wasn’t how he had planned to finish his four years. This was supposed to be his best semester, the one he set up so carefully, with favorite classes. All his friends were suddenly gone. Amid an empty campus, he felt empty. He feared he would not see them again until graduation day, and maybe not even then.

The situation reminded me somewhat of an old article in our campus newspaper that I read every spring semester to my “Modern Civilization” course — a retrospective on life at Grove City College during World War II. “It was a sad, sad time on campus,” remembered one alumna. “Almost the entire male student population was gone.” Another recalled, “I was a freshman. Many of the girls were crying because they had brothers who would be called to war. In just a few short weeks, a lot of the boys were gone. We had very little social life, no football team or anything like that.”

Sad as those memories were, the situation on campus in 2020 was actually more desolate. Boys and girls alike are gone. Sports, finished. Of course, that happened nationwide. There was no March Madness this year for college basketball. Excellent speakers who were coming to campus … well, they were all cancelled. We nixed our annual April conference.

Not only did I experience this uniquely as a professor with students on my own campus, but also as a dad with not one but two sons graduating.

A couple weeks later, I drove to an empty Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, with my son, a senior there. Like colleges everywhere, the college asked him and everyone to move out of their rooms — courtesy of the scourge of coronavirus. They would not be going back this semester. For my son, this was tough. He, too, never got to say goodbye to his classmates and professors. He made wonderful friendships there.

Arriving there at Saint Vincent that day was surreal. It was a beautiful day, with spring in the air, and yet virtually no faces. Over the course of about an hour and a half, I didn’t see even a dozen people. The resident directors (those few visible) were managing the process of students emptying their rooms. During the time we were moving out, only one other family was in the dorm building, and on a different floor.

Leaving Saint Vincent College was hard for me as well as my son. As was my custom upon bringing my son to the college, I wanted to stop in the glorious basilica there, as I usually did, paying a visit to the tabernacle in particular. On this day, I wanted to give thanks for this college that was so good to my son. But it was closed. Even monks were doing social-distancing at Vespers.

I had never seen anything like it.

The latest from my son’s college: They are hoping to hold a commencement ceremony not in May, but in the fall at homecoming. Or, at least, that was the thinking in early April. The question is now being raised at every college: Will the nation’s campuses even open again in the fall?

Alas, that’s the million-dollar question (literally) for colleges all across America.

It’s a question I began hearing from my students by mid-April.

Knowing that they could kiss goodbye the notion of returning to campus for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester, they began wondering if fall 2020 might be out, too. Here again, such closures would dramatically affect everything from dorms to cafeterias to bookstores to student unions to arenas to stadiums. For those NCAA sports fans reeling from the shock of no March Madness, imagine a fall with no college football. Is it possible?

Truth be told, it’s a very good question, and every college in every hot-spot area of COVID-19, particularly in the northeast and in major cities (where the virus is most prevalent), is now grappling with the prospects. That’s particularly so as colleges have now already transitioned to online classes anyway. Some professors fear that universities will be so at ease with cheaper online courses that students will never go back. But that will not be the case. Ask professors and students if they prefer online instruction to a live teacher in the classroom, and most will tell you the latter, especially those who prefer a campus experience. Sure, many colleges will inevitably look to further transition online, but many others thrive on campus life, not to mention on dollars from room and board.

So, will they open in fall 2020?

What I’m gauging from colleagues around the country is that it currently seems highly plausible that many will not reopen in the fall unless there’s a (unlikely) near-disappearance of COVID-19 cases in the surrounding area, or without the sudden emergence of an effective vaccine or treatment (or perhaps an accurate, widely available test for antibody screening).

Dictating and driving those precautions will be not merely concerned administrators and faculty, but parents and, no doubt, lawyers. I’ve heard of nervous parents (I’m completely sympathetic) phoning provost’s offices demanding that university X, Y, or Z shut down now and send their child home immediately. If not, and that child ended up sick, the university would hear from the parents’ attorney, pronto.

Imagine a college opening up, say, the day after Labor Day 2020, with ongoing reports of one-thousand-plus or even one-hundred-plus active COVID-19 cases in the county (a very strong possibility even by August), only to have one hundred students suddenly end up sick and testing positive by late September. Not only would it be shutdown time again, but it could be lawsuit time. And where would those students be housed while recovering? When and how could they be sent home and handed over to parents who are much more vulnerable to COVID-19’s high fatality rates?

Above all, imagine hot-zone cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and others with very infection rates. “There’s no way that schools can reopen here in the fall,” a colleague in New York tells me. “No way. Are you nuts?”

Not only would the freshman moving into the dorm be immediately exposed in a city like New York, but so would the parent moving in the child in August. And then what happens when the infected freshman goes home for fall break, Thanksgiving, or Christmas, and thereby exposes a family far outside New York, potentially initiating a new wave in a new locality?

As for an effective treatment, the inability to find one has been the scariest aspect of the war against COVID-19. Doctors have not found a solution, even as they have had an apparent good degree of success in many critical cases with hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), with the antibiotic called azithromycin, and even with some experimental approaches for people literally on their deathbeds — such as employing antibody-rich plasma from COVID-19 patients who have recovered. The lack of an effective treatment explains the shockingly high fatality rates that we’re seeing in the United States and around the world.

The question is now being raised at every college: Will the nation’s campuses even open again in the fall?

These fatality rates are far worse than everyone imagined. As I write, the U.S. fatality rate has rapidly surpassed 5 percent, which is way beyond the 2 to 3 percent everyone initially anticipated with this nasty virus. There are now seven countries in Western Europe well over 10 percent, with four above 13 percent, which is horrific, truly frightening. By comparison, the seasonal flu has a mere 0.1 percent fatality. At the time of this writing, the fatality rate in theUnited States, which is one of the milder rates, is over fifty times more deadly than the flu. If this thing wasn’t contained, you would see an enormous number of deaths, making seasonal flu look like a hiccup. (I’m fully aware of claims by skeptics who believe the fatality rates are skewed because of a lack of testing. But even if the fatality rates in, say, Europe, are a quarter of the 12 percent rates reported in various countries there, such rates would still bethirty times higher than the seasonal flu. COVID-19 is every bit the unique killer we fear it to be.)

And this coronavirus isn’t merely killing older people with a bunch of preexisting conditions. Yes, they’re the most vulnerable, but there are too damned many middle-aged people dying from this malicious virus, not to mention survivors escaping with permanent lung damage that looks like the work of a napalm bombing.

As for vaccines, there are at least two early examples that appear to have some promise and possibility of perhaps being ready by the fall semester. One is from UK researchers at Oxford University, which they contend could be ready for mass use by September, and another from the University of Pittsburgh, which researchers right out of the gate believed they could have ready in weeks. A quick word on the Pitt vaccine, which I know well, and which I’ve written about at The American Spectator’s website.

On April 2, as COVID-19 cases in the United States were skyrocketing, with a flattening of the curve still two weeks away, researchers at Pitt Medical School and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center held a press conference announcing the first major candidate for a COVID-19 vaccine. They published their results in the April 1 issue of eBioMedicine, the online version of The Lancet. It could be the real deal. How did this crew pull this off so quickly?

“We had previous experience on SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS-CoV in 2014,” said lead researcher Dr. Andrea Gambotto. “We knew exactly where to fight this new virus.” When the genetic sequencing for the current COVID-19 virus was identified in January, the Pitt team was “able to plug into” its existing framework “and rapidly produce a vaccine.”

They were ready to go. The vaccine is being called “PittCoVacc.” They’re seeking FDA approval for an accelerated clinical trial.

But for colleges, could these treatments be ready by the fall semester?

In maybe a best-case scenario, consider if a vaccine was ready and approved by September: This would at the least cause a delay in students getting back to school (they usually arrive in late August). Moreover, it would be further interesting to watch the rush to get these vaccines and how the demand would be handled logistically. Further, there no doubt will be a risk that the vaccines could have unforeseen side effects, particularly if their trials and release are hurried, which will cause many people to not get vaccinated and could create civil-liberties battles by authorities demanding that certain individuals get inoculated. If and when a vaccine emerges, yet more controversies will surface.

So, yes, the fall semester is in question. But would it end there?

Alas, we would then run into the winter semester — flu season again. Dr. Anthony Fauci was warning in March that this COVID-19 outbreak could become the seasonal new norm. We’ll know whether he was right come winter, just when numerous colleges throughout the fall were gingerly hoping to reschedule for January 2021.

In short, this is a remarkably fluid situation. There are a lot of dynamics to navigate. Colleges like to plan things, with all sorts of contingencies. But unfortunately, this pandemic for quite a while will remain as elusive to making plans as it has to making drugs to resolve it.

But for now, you can plan on this: the issue of whether or not colleges will open in fall 2020 is very much a giant question mark. That much we do know. These are crazy times.

Paul Kengor
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Paul Kengor is Editor of The American Spectator. Dr. Kengor is also a professor of political science at Grove City College, a senior academic fellow at the Center for Vision & Values, and the author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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