Back to School: How Long Can We Last?

Higher ed chatter lit up yesterday with the news that UNC Chapel Hill, which had started up in-person classes last week, abruptly transitioned to online only this week when 177 of their students tested positive in that first week. And of course the big question on everybody’s lips (masked lips) is “Do you think we’re going to last any longer?”

I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit, and my thoughts (as usual) run longer than a simple Facebook comment would give enough room for. Though the easiest answer for me to give would be “It’s complicated.”

UNC Chapel Hill’s master plan for in-person classes was to have all their students, staff, and faculty to pretend they were already infected and to take extreme precautions. Clearly, that didn’t work. I don’t think it would work for any school of UNC’s size. 30,000 students? If even .1% of them have COVID when they come to classes, that’s 30 students, which seems like a vey manageable number. Except it means 29,970 of them did *not* have COVID, and telling all of them to “pretend that you do” just isn’t going to cut it. Not in real life.

COVID falls into the treacherous territory of “It probably won’t do you lasting damage and very probably won’t kill you.” Why is that so treacherous? If it were any worse, then more people would be genuinely afraid of getting it. In that case, more people would self-isolate and wear masks, which would result in the virus going away much more quickly. But people know that the odds are in their favor, and like the Hunger Games, it’s much more fun to go out and party with the District 1 crowd than it is to actually be in the arena fighting for your life. But as long as you’re not the one in that arena . . . sit back and enjoy the show, right? (Seriously. If there’s one thing this pandemic is teaching me, it’s that all the dystopian books out there vastly overestimate the amount of people who are really going to rise up in rebelling if anything terrible happens. That said, I suppose we’re still in the lead up to a true dystopia, and all the dystopian books start with that dystopia in full swing. Maybe we just have to wait a few decades?)

Ahem. Where was I?

Right. UNC’s approach was destined to failure, because enough people aren’t really worried about getting COVID. (That’s a topic for a later date.) But the big question is what will happen at other universities?

By and large, I expect most large universities to follow UNC’s path. Be open for a while until it’s proven that they just can’t cut the mustard against the COVID fight, and then head online. Some of this will depend greatly on the region and the size of the school in question. If they’re in a spot with relatively low rates, then I think they’ll be able to go a lot longer without hitting crisis mode. Basically, each school is a boat, and the infection rates and student population size are holes in that boat. If the holes are small enough, you should be able to theoretically bail it out and stay afloat. If you’re in the Titanic, on the other hand . . . Better go look for a suitably large door to float away on.

What does it mean specifically for my institution, however? Well, UMF is small. 1,700 students, give or take. We’re also in a remote part of a state with one of the lowest infection rates in the country. Theoretically we should start the semester with low rates even if we did nothing. But we’re not doing nothing. We’re testing all students who will be living on campus, all students who are from out of state, and all student athletes. All of them get tested and have to quarantine until they get the results in three days. Then a week into classes, they all get tested again. From then on, some of them continue to be tested, at random, every week. If a test comes back positive, the student has to quarantine for 2 weeks. Contact tracing happens. Other people quarantine to prevent spread.

Is it a perfect approach? Not entirely. I mean, compare it to Colby’s, where they’re testing literally everyone on campus every week for the entire semester and not letting anyone in from outside that bubble. That would be as close to “this will very likely work” as you can get, I would think. But not every school has Colby money, sadly. I think ours is about as good as a state school is going to get. People are working very hard on keep students, staff, and faculty safe. I’ve seen a lot of that work first hand, and I know how committed everyone is to it.

But will it work?

I think it will definitely work for a while, but there are too many unknowns to figure out what will actually happen. IF case rates stay low in Maine, then that will be huge. Anyone who leaves the state has to be tested when they return (assuming they don’t like about leaving the state). IF people consistently wear masks and social distance, any cases that do arrive should wither away. (Though we know from experience some students just aren’t going to do that off campus, at parties, etc.) IF the onset of fall and winter don’t make cases everywhere shoot through the roof, that will be another point in our favor.

Lots and lots of ifs.

I tend to think we’ll make it through September without difficulty. I would like to think we can get through October as well. Thanksgiving is just a few more weeks after that . . . If I were a betting man (and I’m not), I would say we’d make it long enough for students to feel like they had a solid in-person school experience. (Though an admittedly very different one.) Generally speaking, I like our chances. I think the bulk of our students will wear masks. I think our remoteness will work in our favor. Even on campus, we’re typically spread far apart even in normal circumstances. That has to account for something.

Doesn’t it?

I feel in many ways like Wile E. Coyote running into thin air. As long as I don’t look down, I can’t fall. Right? Right.


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