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Incredibly irresponsible (#1109)

Topics/tags: Academia, Rants

It’s late summer. In late summer in the US, school typically begins. President Harris tells me that it’s because we’re tied to an agrarian calendar. Perhaps that still makes sense, at least in states like Iowa.

But there’s a pandemic on. That makes things complicated. It makes them even more complicated in a state like Iowa, in which the data have been incorrectly recorded and reported [1]. Since I’m in higher education, I’m going to consider some issues in higher ed, although not necessarily in Iowa.

Some schools have been incredibly cautious, saying from early summer that they would be online this fall. Others have looked to compromises, such as low-density campuses, with only one-quarter to one-half of the students there at any one time, and a mix of in-person and online classes. And some, spearheaded by Mitchell Elias Daniels Jr.—who somehow became president of Purdue immediately after serving as governor of Indiana—have been pushing for full residency and in-person classes.

I get it. It’s not a decision I would make, but I understand the panic of We can’t afford to stay open unless we get students paying tuition and room and board and Remote education is not equitable and Our local businesses depend on us and Many of our students will be safer on campus than in their homes and Impacts on young people seem to be limited and things like that. Well, maybe not the last explicit statement. Some young people will still suffer immediate serious effects and we still don’t know the long-term impact of Covid-19 and SARS-CoV-2. These young people also interact with non-young people.

But I get it. People did a cost-benefit analysis. They weighed different issues, probably giving different weights than I would. They considered scenarios. At least I hope they did. These are not easy decisions.

Since there’s some evidence that political leaders make off-the-cuff decisions and refuse to back off from them, let’s take another Indiana institution as an example. Notre Dame is a large, wealthy, research institution. When they made plans for a time-shifted, in-person fall, I have to assume that there was a lot of hard intellectual work at play [2].

You may have noted that I used the term irresponsible in the title of this musing. I don’t consider the in-person, full-capacity plan to be irresponsible, at least not the broad picture. As I said, I have confidence that people thought carefully about issues involved, particularly since Notre Dame made some changes that suggested that they were thinking through issues. For example, the decision to start in early August and finish by Thanksgiving appears to have taken into account the dangers of allowing students to leave and return as well as the likelihood that infection rates will rise in the winter.

Of course, there are many out there who think that full capacity is irresponsible. What is it they say? If a cruise ship is a petri dish, a dorm is an incubator full of peetri dishes. Something like that.

As you may have heard, Notre Dame’s hopes for a successful in-person fall have shown to be a bit optimistic. After passing 100 positive tests on campus, they’ve moved to online classes for the next two weeks, while keeping students on campus. Let’s hope that that keeps things a bit safer.

One of the first articles I read about Notre Dame included a note that the university’s COVID-19 dashboard has shown a rising number of cases, with 147 confirmed cases since Aug. 3 out of a total of 927 tests performed. Only 927 tests out of 12,000 or so students? That seems irresponsible. It’s also not quite true. I see from the aforementioned dashboard that they required all enrolled students to undergo testing before coming to campus. If the dashboard is to be believed, 11,836 tests yielded 33 positive cases [3]. I also see that since the article was published, the numbers from recent tests show 222 confirmed cases out of 1,287 tests.

So what’s irresponsible? Notre Dame, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and other institutions, is considering sending students home. Here’s a quotation from the article, which comes from a streaming video by the president [4].

Upon receiving recent results, we began to make plans to send you home and continue instruction online, as we did last spring.

Now that would be irresponsible. They know that they’ve spread the disease to a bunch of students. They know that some are likely asymptomatic. And yet they are considering sending them home to spread the disease to their home communities? What are they thinking?

As I said, it’s not just Notre Dame. UNC-Chapel Hill is telling students to go home [5]. I’m sure that other schools are, too. If they are not testing each student before sending them home, recommending that they quarantine themselves for two weeks when they get home, and providing follow-up testing, then they are not just irresponsible. I’d even suggest that they are responsible, responsible for any further spread.

Postscript: I had wanted to title this Inconceivably irresponsible or Irredeemably irresponsible or something like that. But those titles seemed excessive, even for this situation and even for me.

[1] Here’s one example. There are certainly others. I may even muse on this particular example.

[2] As a non-Catholic, I’ll admit that I know more about the intellectual considerations of Jesuits and Dominicans than about members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Still, I assume the CSC’s members are also deeply studious.

[3] I assume none of those 33 were allowed to return to campus until they no longer tested positive (perhaps with multiple tests).

[4] Tiny little Grinnell can caption its videos. Why can’t Notre Dame?

[5] Arguably, it’s telling them that they can return home. But it sounds like it’s encouraging them to do so.

Version 1.0 of 2020-08-19 .