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Editorial: Colleges and universities need to reopen the right way
COVID-19 on Campus

Editorial: Colleges and universities need to reopen the right way

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Jonathan R. Alger

Jonathan R. Alger spoke with James Madison University’s Board of Visitors during a November 2011 meeting in Harrisonburg. He was named president of the school in July 2012.

Over the past six months, Virginians have learned the value of the little things.

Think of face-to-face interaction before the pandemic — the freedom to walk into a room, sit down at a table and say “hello” to a friend. That still is happening during COVID-19, but without ease and with a few extra steps — finding a chair that’s spaced apart, applying hand sanitizer or even struggling to understand a friend’s comment behind a face covering.

On college and university campuses across Virginia, the loss of this freedom is magnified. A strong residential experience is characterized by active participation in classes, regular meetings with professors, engagement with clubs and organizations, and attendance at athletic and social events. It’s a time to learn how to live as adults. How to manage a public health crisis is a new life wrinkle, regardless of age or experience.

We thoroughly believe in-person educational opportunities are within reach during COVID-19. Virginia’s economy successfully reopened through strict adherence to key public health measures — the little things like wearing masks, practicing social distancing and keeping hands clean. Campuses are not immune from adopting these measures, and Virginia’s colleges and universities need to reopen the right way.

James Madison University’s (JMU) effort over the past few weeks provides a thorough blueprint of what not to do. On Aug. 31, social media platforms shook with claims that the school was failing to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. There were reports of packed dining halls with lines stretching outside, and students spaced less than two feet apart in small classrooms, with some forced to sit on the floor.

That doesn’t sound like a safe reopening. Worst of all, it doesn’t sound like an experience worth paying thousands of dollars for.

After 500-plus cases, JMU announced Tuesday that it temporarily was shifting to online-only classes. The decision was made in consultation with the Virginia Department of Health.

How did the effort fall apart so quickly? University spokesperson Caitlyn Read told the RTD two factors drove the change: a steady uptick in positive cases, and a shrinking ability to provide isolation or quarantine space for students who contracted COVID-19 or who might have been exposed.

With nearly 20,000 undergraduate students and 6,000 in campus housing, JMU only had 143 isolation beds available. According to a recent Charlottesville Tomorrow report, the University of Virginia, which as of this writing planned to start some in-person classes Tuesday, set aside around 1,500 beds.

How did JMU’s uptick happen in the first place? The university contends most of the community transmission came outside of campus settings. “Through social gatherings ... college student behavior where they’re hanging out with their friends,” Read told the RTD. “And the overwhelming majority is at off-campus events.”

But “college student behavior” can’t be the lone target for a botched reopening, especially considering students boldly and rightly spoke out about a lack of oversight on campus. Could JMU have done more as an institution, like requiring a COVID-19 screening before school started? Like it or not, administrators are responsible for running the place. The accusations of a ramshackle reopening suggest a lack of leadership.

“We do not make this decision lightly, especially after all of the efforts on the part of so many people to make the campus environment safe for the return of in-person classes,” JMU said in its Tuesday statement. “All along, we understood that we might need to transition to online learning at any moment if circumstances required.”

All kinds of plans have been canceled, postponed or altered to less-than-ideal online settings during COVID-19. Birthday parties, weddings, conferences and overseas trips are just a few examples.

The difference with higher education is: The commitment is not a one-off affair. It’s an expensive, binding decision that requires consistency to create progress. If you were in the middle of a steak dinner at a restaurant and were told to leave, wouldn’t you be upset? You probably would ask for a refund, too. Asking students to move in and out of campus every four weeks is beyond the pale of what we consider appropriate.

Somehow, other schools are demonstrating they can reopen with minimal community spread of COVID-19. The College of William & Mary has tested more than 7,000 students. As of Friday morning, only 20 were positive and all of those cases were captured prior to arrival on campus. Give that school a call.

When Virginia reopened businesses, the change did not happen by magic. An economic recovery — which includes colleges and universities — happens through behavior that respects the existence of a pandemic, not overlooks it.

As part of its “Being the Change” mantra, JMU tells students: “We know that success requires equal parts intellect and action.” That certainly applies to COVID-19. To reopen the right way, the little things — masks, social distancing and frequent hand-washing — matter. Demonstrate that intellect and action, or don’t reopen at all.

Chris Gentilviso

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