BY MARCUS ALFRED, ERIN D. CHAPMAN, PHILIP N. COHEN, HEIDI LI FELDMAN, BETHANY L. LETIECQ, BINH Q. TRAN, AND JULIA G. YOUNG
July 24, 2020
First published in Academe Blog
We are professors at universities across the DC metropolitan area. And, like so many of our colleagues nationwide, we fear our communities will not be safe if DC-area colleges and universities open as planned this fall.
As teachers and researchers, we desperately miss being on campus and in the classroom with our students. Yet we also fear for our safety, as well as the welfare of faculty, staff, students, contracted workers, and residents of local communities if universities reopen as planned in a few weeks, bringing tens of thousands of students back to our campuses and surrounding communities.
We have reviewed our campus reopening plans. While they represent hours of work by many dedicated professionals, they simply do not do enough—because they cannot do enough—to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks among people who live, work, and study on or near our campuses.
The risks and challenges of reopening campuses are clear: numerous staff, faculty, and students have already died in spring 2020; new outbreaks among collegiate athletes and other college students have been reported on campuses nationwide. And we are confronted daily with new evidence about COVID-19: how it spreads, and how it is damaging people’s bodies—even those without symptoms. Recently, some scientists have called for more research on COVID-19 airborne transmission. Another study reports that older children and young adults spread the virus as much as older adults.
The outbreaks that would result from reopening campuses would inevitably overwhelm student health services and local health care systems. All our universities lack the resources needed to implement mass testing and conduct the extensive contact tracing needed in order to control community spread.
Even more urgently, how will our universities protect our most vulnerable workers? Our institutions are located in, serve, and employ people from diverse communities. In particular, reopened universities will rely on custodial and dining staff workers, most of whom are Black and Latinx, to complete the deep cleaning and food preparation necessary to operate our institutions during a pandemic. These essential workers labor for low wages and often receive few benefits. Low-income and racially and ethnically minoritized communities are among those at highest risk for COVID-19 illness and death.
Given the dramatically increasing COVID-19 infection rates both nationally and regionally since July 1, universities must prioritize the preservation of life and the protection of health. As institutions committed to learning and advancing knowledge, we especially should heed the science and data, and do right by our communities.
Local K-12 schools in our area are already taking action and moving to fully online education. Expressing his distress over the life-and-death decisions being made, one Fairfax, Virginia, school board member was recently quoted: “I hope to God I’m wrong. But when schools reopen, people are going to die.”
For our region’s colleges and universities, the only reasonable and ethical path forward in the next month is to deliver all instruction online and to open residence halls only to those students in greatest need of housing. We know that this will place financial strain on our institutions, and we will stand with our administrators in demanding more financial support from state and federal governments.
We advocate continued full pay for all support staff during this emergency and for adequate protective gear for those who must be on duty. At a moment when universities are calling for racial justice, protecting and providing for vulnerable workers, who are disproportionately people of color, should be paramount.
Additionally, we are committed to advocating for and protecting contingent faculty and graduate student teachers, many of whom fear reprisal if they request to teach online, and who are often first in line when funding cuts hit.
As our country flails in its efforts to battle a deadly virus, universities need to make a hard pivot to save lives. We should refocus, expending our considerable resources and talent not on reopening plans but instead on developing the best possible online educational experiences for our students and doing our part to bring this pandemic to an end.
Our guest bloggers are faculty members at universities in Washington, DC, or in its Maryland or Virginia suburbs. Marcus Alfred is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Howard University and president of the Howard University AAUP chapter. Erin D. Chapman is associate professor of history at George Washington University and president of the GWU Faculty Association. Philip N. Cohen is professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Heidi Li Feldman is professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. Bethany L. Letiecq is associate professor of human development and family science at George Mason University and president of the GMU chapter of the AAUP. Binh Q. Tran, associate professor of biomedical engineering, and Julia G. Young, associate professor of history, are faculty at the Catholic University of America and executive board members of the CUA Faculty Assembly.