To call school reopenings across the country “disastrous” would be a gross understatement. A school district in Georgia that barreled toward reopening saw over 900 students and staff infected. Elsewhere in the state, a teen was suspended for trying to hold her high school accountable for ignoring CDC guidelines. UNC Chapel Hill shut down after a single week of classes and an explosion of 135 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Yale is openly asking its students to prepare for death and pestilence.
As schools and administrative officials try to claw their way back to normalcy, they are not only asking the world of their students and staff, but their reopening plans are written in a way that ensures that an inevitable outbreak can be blamed on these same students and staff. Plans and email updates from university administrators have a litany of the standard refrains of “social distancing” and “maintaining small pods,” but it fails to account for inevitable and unavoidable close contact as students move in, live in dorm halls, travel to class, or try to work and attend lectures.
Any reopening plan that excludes increased worker protections and sanitation measures and omits regular and frequent testing for its campus population is just begging to fail. However, this isn’t a problem with personal responsibility, despite the fact that campuses across the country are already moving to frame it as one. Coronavirus can’t distinguish between a stuffy classroom or a packed bus. The only thing these attempts to moralize different kinds of contact do is create a harmful misconception of who is truly to blame for an increase in cases.
For all of our bluster and anger toward people partying, for every Snapchat posted in open contempt of CDC guidelines, we must remember that all of this could have been avoided if universities went online-only at the start of the semester. The resentment and exasperation for those who will not follow directions is absolutely justified, but we need to understand that much of these headaches are entirely self-imposed. The will of an institution is far greater than that of any individual or set groups, even if those groups attempt to collectivize, because everyone else’s choices are still ultimately centered around what the institution decides on. Employees have to eat, students have to go back to keep their scholarships, people’s healthcare is tied to their work and tuition has already been paid.
Everyone else must fall in line because of their personal circumstances and financial conditions are inextricably linked to the will of their universities. Universities are making their decisions based on a need to secure funding so they can continue their research programs and pay their employees. As we all barrel toward reopening, we need to remember that this all could’ve been avoided had the proper federal and state officials taken the virus seriously to begin with. The will of our academic institutions are tied to the economic and political conditions of their communities, of their states and ultimately, of the country’s. There’s always a bigger fish.