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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Schools playing long odds with the return of students

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

The bets are laid.

Now here come the corona cards.

Hundreds of students are moving to Spokane to live on campus at Whitworth and Gonzaga, even as Washington State, Eastern Washington and other schools have gone strictly online. Meanwhile, students in the Mead and East Valley will walk the halls – as will students in districts across the border in Idaho – while those in Spokane, Central Valley and Cheney stay home and learn on computers.

Every school is taking a different approach to the pandemic this fall, ranging from online-only, to in-person classes with a testing-tracing-quarantine regime, to the mask-optional hallways of some schools in Idaho.

All, however, are taking a big fat leap into the unknown. All are making a not-quite-blind wager against the future. For those betting on in-person learning, the odds are good that at least some of them will find themselves forced to retreat, closing campuses or pausing in-person classes to try and wait out an outbreak. The odds that such outbreaks will spread from the student population, where cases tend to be less severe, into the population at large seem quite good indeed.

But the bets are made, the pot’s right, and here come the cards.

If the schools that wagered on their ability to manage the “in-person experience” find themselves with a not-all-unlikely outbreak – if Gonzaga or Whitworth has to beat a hasty retreat, say – administrators should resist the temptation to blame the students for doing what anyone could have predicted students would do.

The students aren’t the ones who made the bet.

All around the country, at campus after campus, the high hopes of a smooth return to the vaunted “in-person” experience of college have been dashed within days. The University of Alabama posted more than 1,000 cases right off the bat. The University of Iowa and Illinois State University recorded more than 500 apiece – as has little Georgia College.

Local officials in those jurisdictions shut down or put limits on bars.

North Carolina State had 800 cases within days of students’ return, and shut down its dorms. Notre Dame found 150 cases in its first week, and retreated from in-person classes. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville had 150 cases and shut down its Greek system. Temple and Towson and East Carolina universities all shut down in-person learning in mere days, after initial virus outbreaks among the student population.

Other schools that had immediate outbreaks initiated temporary “pauses” of in-person learning, as they try to put a lid on things. The same dynamic – open first, only to close or retrench significantly almost immediately – is happening at K-12 schools, as well.

Everywhere you look, the best-laid plans are falling apart.

USA Today examined the COVID-19 case counts at all counties with a major sports college – the so-called Power 5 conferences, including the Pac-12 – and found that the seven-day average of cases rose 25% on average.

That, even as the seven-day average across the country fell 9%.

Everywhere you look, the bets aren’t paying off.

There’s not much mystery about why. Colleges are making a Herculean ask of their young charges: don’t party, wear masks, avoid the bars, keep your distance, limit the visitors to your dorm room, live behind plexiglass …

A lot of young people won’t toe this line. That might be aggravating to those of us who dutifully mask up all the time now, but it’s also entirely predictable. A large number of students, whose lives have already been upended by the pandemic, are simply not going to be strict about following the guidelines that college administrators are so earnestly begging them to follow.

This is true regardless of what colleges do. For proof of that, look no farther than Pullman, where students returned to town even though WSU went online-only, and helped fuel one of the country’s hottest hot spots. It’s frustrating, but it shouldn’t be at all surprising.

This is not just a question of huge house parties or crowded bars, either; at the University of Southern California, which has closed its campus, cases have been traced back to Monopoly games and study sessions.

The ability of socializing students to spread a virus is remarkable. At Butler, for example, officials noted their contact tracing program identified 75 contacts for some of their positive cases. For the people who like to minimize the risk to young people, think of that web of connection, and the ways it can reach into the faculty and staff and surrounding community.

Meanwhile, university administrators, who face enormous financial pressures to attempt the in-person impossible, are urging the kids to follow the rules and blaming them when they don’t – blaming them, that is, for doing what anyone could have predicted that some of them, at least, would do.

The scoldings are almost as common as the outbreaks.

An administrator at Syracuse issued a statement upbraiding a bunch of irresponsible freshmen who “selfishly jeopardized the very thing so many of you claim to want from Syracuse University – that is, a chance at a residential collegiate experience. … Be adults. Think of someone other than yourself.”

Be adults, indeed. The wager that the in-person campus experience will be manageable without the in-person experience of widespread viral transmission is a risky one at best.

It’s one that a lot of adults might have avoided altogether.

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