Look closely at how universities are handling the pandemic: as a marketing point. There is no plan.
As we see more and more outbreaks on campuses, university presidents and trustees will run for cover, and these kinds of rationalizations for what they did and did not do are going to come in a torrent. They’ll blame students first and foremost for breaking campus codes of conduct, and bring the hammer down on them. For example, here’s what Donde Plowman, chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, said in mid-August: “We will hold you responsible, and it’s possible that you could be expelled from school, and I will not hesitate to do that if our students are irresponsible.”
But who is being irresponsible here? Many are going to blame the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as it hasn’t provided anything like real guidance to universities and colleges, let alone elementary and secondary schools, to manage risk. We’ve been abandoned by our political leaders as we head into a dangerous period of the pandemic with Covid-19 potentially colliding with seasonal influenza this fall. If we had a real national commitment to testing, many more colleges and universities would be able to test their students, staff, and faculty members with cheaper, faster antigen-based screening tests, and rely on federal support to help them tackle all the rest of what is needed now to keep us all safe.
Even so, if a college’s plan to manage the coronavirus hangs on the behavior of 18- to 22-year-olds, it isn’t much of a plan at all; it’s a house of cards ready to collapse at a moment’s notice. This isn’t to infantilize our students, but to say that a comprehensive response is more than a signature on a campus compact. In states with still-substantial epidemics, there is not much universities can do to prevent outbreaks. There is too much virus, too many people, and too many opportunities for transmission. Furthermore, without testing frequently, outbreaks in this setting will quickly grow out of control — epidemics follow a pattern of exponential growth, and containing them early is key. It’s hard to make the case that reopening for face-to-face instruction can be done in this situation.