Delaying students from returning to three University of Minnesota campuses, including the flagship Twin Cities location, by two weeks will accomplish little. U leadership should move classes online for the semester and keep students at home at least until the end of 2020.
The same responsible call should be made at colleges and universities across the nation that have yet to resume classes. The COVID-19 pandemic remains out of control in much of the United States, and higher education settings have proven fertile ground for viral transmission.
That’s been true even at institutions that have taken precautions, such as testing students before or as they arrive on campus. The University of Alabama, for example, required students to submit a negative COVID test result before attending classes or participating in other activities. On Monday, the school reported 566 cases of the infectious disease on its online campus dashboard. That’s less than a week after classes started in Tuscaloosa.
COVID has spread swiftly elsewhere as well. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill tried a hybrid approach, limiting residence hall capacity and in-person classes. But just one week after instruction resumed and two weeks after dorms opened, it announced that it was moving all undergraduate classes online after 130 students and five employees became infected. UNC is also trying to reduce the number of students in its dorms.
A medical degree isn’t needed to see the risks. Despite testing and well-intentioned precautions at some schools, COVID is demonstrating resoundingly that it can overcome these obstacles. There’s little reason to believe the virus will act any differently in Minnesota. Winter will also arrive sooner here, resulting in more people spending time inside, a higher-risk setting for transmission.
The U has put together a COVID plan that hews to recommendations from Minnesota Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But cases and severe illness are inevitable, especially with the size of the U’s metro campus. It serves over 47,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students.
The U, after a needed change, is now planning to publicly share a COVID testing results summary from its Boynton Health Services in the Twin Cities. That won’t provide a complete look at viral spread since many students see private providers, but it will be a barometer. And when it does show mounting cases, there will be considerable public pressure from parents, staff and policymakers to shift to online-only instruction and take other measures.
It’s better for all involved to head that off by making the call now to shift to remote-only learning and keep the dorms closed for the semester. That would prevent students, many of whom are in higher-risk communal living settings, from spreading the virus if they return home from campus.
The U and other schools should make room-and-board refunds to families without hassle, if this decision is made. Students who enrolled for the semester thinking that there would be some in-person instruction should also be allowed to back out without financial penalty.
It’s important to note that students share responsibility for containing the virus and so far have generally fallen short of this obligation. Reports of parties at St. Olaf College, Iowa State University and other schools are deeply frustrating but not unexpected.
These are young adults and they’re going to make mistakes when they’re out from under close parental supervision, some for the first time. This year, those mistakes can have more severe consequences. Sensible action is needed now from higher education leaders in Minnesota and elsewhere to protect students, their families and their communities.