Here is what colleges and universities are not getting (or perhaps they are simply refusing to see) – the virus is an airborne virus and there is significant evidence that it is transmitted through aerosols. You can have masks and social distancing in classrooms and public places, but in classrooms where a student, students, or faculty member may be sick, the virus can concentrate in the air over time – yes, masks will decrease the risk, but not completely. To make matters worse, most of these classrooms do not have windows or adequate ventilation systems to disperse the aerosols conveying the virus.
The most pressing problem contributing to COVID-19 outbreaks on campuses is the residential living, both in dorms and Greek houses where students are often living 2 to a room, 4 or more to a suite, and sharing bathrooms with roommates and suite mates. If one person gets sick in the suite, the chances of multiplying that one case by 3, 4, or more is almost guaranteed. Students cannot be expected to wear a mask in their own bedrooms, thus if one student in a suite is sick, the virus is concentrating in the air in the suite over time, leading to the likely infection of 4 students rather than one, not to mention the people those four students may come in contact with outside of their rooms. And this is if every student is following the rules and not going to any parties or gathering in any large groups on or off campus.
You throw something like a football team or other contact sports into the mix with players breathing directly into each other’s faces in practices and games, and the situation on campus becomes even more unmanageable. Yet the lucrative income of college sports drives universities to do just that in their attempt to keep the millions of dollars coming in, but we all must realize that real people will die because of these decisions.
Even universities like the University of Illinois, with a massive testing regimen of 10,000 to 15,000 tests a day (sometimes 2% of the total daily tests in the entire United States) and significant investments in contact tracing cannot control and contain the virus. How can we expect colleges that can only manage to test symptomatic students to fare any better?
Campuses are only one, two, or three weeks into classes; and many are already experiencing outbreaks that are out of control. Numerous campuses have rightly suspended in persons classes. Hundreds more will follow. The question we must ask ourselves is this: “When hundreds of campuses are forced to shut down in person instruction after tens of thousands or even more students faculty, staff, and surrounding community members are infected; how many serious illnesses, hospitalizations, and preventable deaths with follow?”
When colleges and universities wait until they have significant COVID-19 outbreaks before they move to online instruction, they have already passed the point where it is likely some people will die either on or off campus owing to the lack of foresight by the campus to understand that residential college life with in person instruction creates one of the most conducive environments possible for the spread of the virus. For COVID-19, our colleges and universities are similar to cruise ships, but instead of being surrounded by the sea, they are surrounded by communities full of vulnerable people, too many of whom will die preventable deaths because decisions to close will come too late.
The evidence is clear where all of this is headed, and college and universities now have the responsibility to practice what they preach, listen to science, and make evidence-based and ethical decisions that will contribute to the well being of our communities and society as whole by moving away from residential living and in person instruction for the rest of the fall semester so that we can finally have a chance to contain this deadly virus. Borrowing language from MLK, “the fierce urgency of now” requires action because “there is such a thing as too late.”