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Williams: VCU is reopening its campus amid COVID. Will students, faculty and workers pay the price?
COVID-19 on campuses

Williams: VCU is reopening its campus amid COVID. Will students, faculty and workers pay the price?

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We can only hope that the COVID-19 outbreak at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill isn’t a sign of things to come at Virginia Commonwealth University.

VCU’s campus has reopened for business, with students attending class, frequenting dining halls and living in dormitories — and, likely, hitting a bar or party. Among the courses for fall semester, 47% are in-person, 36% are online and the remainder are hybrids or blends.

For those who opted to return to campus rather than study remotely, the school has created socially distanced classrooms, installed temperature check stations and made other accommodations.

We’re hoping for the best. But at every turn in this pandemic, the U.S. has been undone by premature reopenings that have made us the COVID-19 capital of the world. Early returns from campuses have not been encouraging.

UNC-Chapel Hill was forced to change course on in-person teaching, shifting to all-remote instruction after a spike of COVID-19 cases. Other schools across the nation are seeing outbreaks.

VCU is not situated on leafy, isolated acreage. It’s an urban university, interwoven into the fabric of downtown Richmond, the Fan and Carver. Its students also populate Jackson Ward, Oregon Hill and Randolph.

The school went to online instruction this past March as the U.S. belatedly realized the gravity of this pandemic. Today, as the nation approaches 5.5 million total cases and a death toll exceeding 170,000, we are sending young adults back to college.

Meanwhile, face masks have become a focal point in the U.S. culture wars. Coronavirus testing and contact tracing are inadequate.

This return to college is a crapshoot that looks less like sound public policy than a business decision. But this is risky business.

The schools of the Pac-12 and Big Ten conferences are suspending their football seasons. But those conferences are islands of sanity in the greed-driven world of college sports. As a result, the Black Lives Matter movement is establishing a toehold in college athletics, as student-athletes seek compensation for literally risking their lives or future livelihood in the most contact-filled sport.

But why should college sports be any different? Our rapacious economy demands a steady supply of canaries to send into the COVID-19 coal mine.

Grocery store employees, meat plant workers and transit drivers now are being joined by educators, students and campus workers on the front lines of this pandemic. This window to dystopia has opened our eyes to the disparities baked into U.S. life that determine who lives, who dies, who gets incarcerated and who gets to keep a roof over their head.

This is why folks are marching.

In the meantime, in the face of empirical data, we cling to expensive ways of doing things that simply aren’t sustainable. Our higher education, like our health care, is vastly less affordable than just about any place in the developed world.

Bianca Eaton, a VCU student from Fairfax, had disparities in mind when she launched an online petition demanding a virtual option for all courses within all departments, and for a reversal of policies that require students to be on-campus at any point.

Eaton has asthma; her mother, a compromised immune system. She’s taking classes online. In an Instagram slideshow, she argues that the university’s reopening plan “places too much responsibility on the student rather than the school.”

Indeed, asking college students to launder cloth masks after every use does seem unrealistic. VCU students often live in apartments and shared spaces; its open campus is visited by people from all walks of life. It’s a place not designed for social distance.

The school’s reopening plan, Eaton said, “puts my peers in a very vulnerable position and forces them to choose between education and safety.”

But tuition is the lifeblood for schools like VCU. So here we are.

Everett Carpenter, a VCU chemistry professor and head of the VCU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the spike at UNC was inevitable. He fears the same outcome at VCU — and the same disruption incurred by last spring’s mid-semester closing.

“The question is, are we going to be able to get through to the middle of September? I’m skeptical.”

Carpenter, who is teaching online because he has vulnerable people in his family, says most departments at VCU, but not all, have been lenient toward instructors with similar issues. He acknowledged that the footprint of the school has been reduced. Some 4,000 students will live on a campus built to house more than 6,200.

But this pandemic has hastened what would have been an inevitable reckoning in higher education, whose graduates are saddled with heavy debt and — increasingly — dwindling returns on investment.

Like so many of our institutions in this dollar-driven society, U.S. higher education’s vulnerabilities are being exposed by this virus. We need to start working on cures.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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