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Western New England University’s reopening plan is setting students up to fail

By Professor Anonymous

At Western New England University, all faculty and staff are required to complete a COVID-19 quiz before returning to campus. The quiz is only 11 questions, most of them boilerplate public health guidance. Six feet for social distancing. Asymptomatic people still can spread the virus. Respiratory droplets spread virus. But the final question stands out: “True or False: Personal responsibility is key in controlling the spread of COVID-19.”

I know the answer they want me to put is “true.” But I can’t bring myself to mark it. I mark “false” instead. I’m wrong, but I score 10/11. I can return to campus.

I am an adjunct lecturer at WNE, which has announced that 86% of its classes will be “on the ground” and “in-person” for the fall. Given my contingent status at the university, my risks of returning to campus are both mortal and economic, which might be the same in the end. Though the university does not provide my health insurance, they can demand that I return to the classroom and face getting sick (the costs of which the state of Massachusetts will then have to cover, through the state’s health exchange, subsidized by taxpayers).

Western New England University’s re-opening plan is a tangle of half-measures and no-measures; all communications narrow down, in the end, to an idea of “personal responsibility.” On the “Student Guide on the Start of Classes”, the University states: “Every individual’s personal responsibility is to care for one another, and one of the most important values of the Western New England University community.” I can’t help but note that the second half of the sentence is a fragment: fragmented thinking and fragmented answers define this administration’s whole approach to the pandemic.

To understand how the university’s platform begins and ends with “personal responsibility”, I should give an overview of their reopening plan.

When students arrive to campus on move-in day, they will first have to take a PCR nasal swab test before they can receive their dorm room keys. Students will not be required to quarantine while they await results. During a parent/student town hall on July 27, Kathy Reid, director of Health Services, said that the university was “hoping for a 24 to 48 hour turnaround [for] those test results.” That number has since slipped to “1 week”, depending on the volume of tests. It is unclear how much more that number will slip when 4,000 tests have to be conducted.

So why aren’t students being asked to quarantine while they await their results? Aren’t tests only effective if they can identify infected individuals before they immerse themselves in a community? The university reasons that so long as students follow social distancing guidelines, which includes wearing masks at all times while on campus and maintaining six feet of social distance, students cannot infect others. But what about the majority of students who will be sharing dorm rooms with roommates who are also awaiting their test results? Are they expected to wear masks in their own dorm rooms? In another town hall with parents and students two days later, on July 29, a parent asked this very question. Jeanne S. Hart-Steffes, Dean of Students, answered:

“We don’t expect roommates to be on the other side of the room. Of course they’re going to connect with each other. Of course, the hope would be as they can do it safely via mask. Via personal hygiene. If they can sit on one bed on one side of the room, and the other one sits on the other bed on the other side of the room. There’s probably six feet between the two of them. But we’re basically asking people to be responsible because we don’t want this virus to spread. We don’t want it to be part of their college experience […]. Is it at all reasonable that roommates may not or that will get we’d be farther than six feet apart because of the size of the room? Yeah, that’s a possibility. Is it a reality? I don’t know. It all depends. Do they like each other? Do they hang out with each other? Are they in the same major? So, um, but realistically students will be with other students in a way to enjoy their college career.”

Note the wavering contradictions in Hart-Steffes’ response: the administration doesn’t expect students to stay on the far sides of their rooms. In fact, they expect students will “connect”, but hopefully “via mask”. So students, in fact, will have to wear masks in their own dorm rooms. But then Hart-Steffes pivots; at first, she has conceded that students likely won’t stay on the far ends of their rooms; but now, she is saying that if one student sits on his bed, and the other student sits on his bed, then everything will be okay. She pivots again to say that the university is asking students to be responsible, even though she admits she, herself, doesn’t know if it’s possible for students in their own rooms to keep six feet of distance. The final pivot is the most interesting, even as it veers toward complete incoherence: Hart-Steffes says that it “all depends”. Do roommates like each other? Do they hang out? If students like each other, “realistically” they will find ways to enjoy their time together. Hart-Steffes is circling around an important truth about most mortal people: we like to spend time with each other, and social distancing isn’t just unnatural—it sucks.

I am reminded of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment which studied delayed gratification in young children. Researchers tortured children by isolating them in rooms with a plate on which rested a single marshmallow. The researchers promised the children that, if they waited a short amount of time, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows. As you can imagine, many children found the first marshmallow too tantalizing. For these children, the future seemed so dim and far away, whereas the present was so bright and squishy.

And here lies the problem with “personal responsibility” in dorm rooms: the university is putting students in rooms with tantalizing marshmallows (their fellow students), but they are promising no rewards for delaying gratification (not interacting). Of course, the university can’t promise any reward—nobody can predict what the winter will bring with this pandemic.

I haven’t even touched on the rest of the WNE plan: after the initial round of tests, they are committing only to do “some random testing” in the community, though they have yet to articulate how much, how often, or what kinds of tests.

I haven’t even touched on how faculty just discovered that we’d be tested on the first day of class. Think about that: we will be in the classroom with students while our test results take a week or more to tell us whether or not we’re positive. Though much of the discourse surrounding the opening of schools has centered unfairly on the protection of teachers and staff, WNE has gone out of its way to assure parents that students will be protected. So how are students protected by being in the same room with teachers who haven’t received their test results?

Furthermore, the university will not commit to conduct any contact tracing themselves. All contact tracing will happen through the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. When asked why the university won’t assist in contact tracing, Reid, the health director, said the following: “[W]e will help the city of Springfield with contact tracing if they need […] our assistance, but to be honest with you, that is a large job and we’ll, we’ll be having our hands full with, I believe, you know, because the business that health services is in is not just this one business of COVID. We actually have a full business side of this so […] we will definitely do the best we can with that but it is the Department of Public Health who will handle the contact tracing.” It’s unclear what Reid means that the university isn’t just in the business of COVID—that much is obvious, and yet dealing with the business of COVID is the first order of business that must be addressed before any other kind of business can happen.

Professors won’t be notified by the university when a student in their class tests positive. Their classmates won’t be notified by the university either. Can we ignore the irony of an institution demanding responsibility of its constituents that it avoids for itself? WNE will place all the “responsibility” of contact tracing on the Department of Public Health, who might very well be overwhelmed with other clusters of infection throughout the state in the fall.

But I want to return to that true or false question at the beginning. Is it true that personal responsibility is key in controlling the spread of SARS-CoV-2? Does the true/false binary of personal responsibility collapse entirely in matters of public health? Yes, individuals spread SARS-CoV-2. But viruses teach us that we share a social body—we are only as healthy as our neighbors, and our neighbors are only as healthy as us. In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag writes, “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Right now, our communal body could be said to inhabit that kingdom of the sick: we are a very sick country, liable to stay sick, so long as a majority of the population lacks immunity. During a global pandemic, our communal body is besieged at all sides. From the failures of testing strategies and the reopening plans of states, to, yes, the failures of individuals, the dangers we face are so various, so multi-vectored, so largely unintelligible, that we are being set up to fail. Failure on both a macro and micro level, between the body politic and the individual body.

WNE is responsible for that failure too. The message the university is sending students seems to be this: Dear student, the semester can proceed on the ground and in-person because our institution has done the important work of setting you up for success. During the July 29 town hall, Hart-Steffes’ could barely contain her excitement: as she rubbed her hands emphatically together, she spilled over her own words, saying, “There’s a, I mean this is, we’re getting ready for you. Folks, I’m telling you.” Do you hear that? We are ready for you. The university wants students, parents, and, to a lesser extent, faculty and staff to believe that they are ready. They are ready so long as the individual is ready—and the individual has only to commit to an impossible quantum state, of being a roommate and not, of being closer than six feet and not, of being tested and not, of being constantly masked and not, of being in perfect compliance at all times and not.

That WNE’s reopening plan comes out of the university’s well-documented financial problems, which should not be ignored. In 2018, a budget deficit led to voluntary buy-outs and layoffs. President Anthony S. Caprio, who retired this month, laid out the university’s 3-year plan to reduce the deficit. But the spring closure of the university in response to the pandemic led to the refunding of $3.8 million in partial room and board costs. In an email to faculty and staff, President Caprio addressed the budgetary shortfall for the spring: “Current circumstances dictate that we must take further steps to curb expenses and control spending. […] We have taken many actions already: open positions will be left vacant; new positions have been frozen; facilities projects have been postponed; and professional development travel has been suspended. Our goal is to reduce the current fiscal year projected deficit budget to below $4 million within the remaining three months of the year. And we must be prepared to face the large deficit budget for next year caused by, among many other factors, a likely downturn in enrollment and an anticipated need to offer more financial aid to struggling families.” As one faculty member put it: the university might be able to pull from its endowment for another year or two, but if students don’t return this semester, the university will be forced to close. 

And maybe this point will be most persuasive for parents and students, as they assess whether or not the university is ready. The university initially told parents that they would not be offering room and board refunds, should the school have to move to remote-learning. A parent at the July 29 town hall pushed back on this position, leaving Bryan Gross, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Marketing, stumbling through an answer about “gathering feedback”, telling the parent, without providing an answer, that this was “good feedback”.  The administration has since backtracked on that stance as of August 20, saying that room and board will be prorated.

Faculty have floated the possibility of walk-outs and other organizing methods to communicate to the administration that the current plan is reckless, but there has been intense pushback in some quarters because of the reality of WNE’s financials. WNE, some say, can’t survive without room and board fees. In this way, the health of the institution supersedes the health of individuals.

Parents should know that by sending their students into WNE classrooms, they are embarking on an experiment that has never worked in the history of public health: can the individual, alone, save us all?

Professor Anonymous teaches at Western New England University.

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