Students must recognize the dangers of returning to campus

As universities around the United States prepare for the fall semester, some have chosen to take measures to protect the health of their communities, like remaining online or opting for a hybrid model. But the majority have decided to return to in-person classes in spite of the worsening pandemic. GW is among those schools, apparently with little regard for the potentially dangerous consequences of the decision.

The University released a thorough reopening plan for bringing its students back, but it is hard to believe that education is the motivating factor for cramming thousands of people into a few city blocks. Even as new daily cases drop in D.C., the District reached 10,000 cases on Monday as the city enters the second phase of reopening. And as we’ve seen in states like Arizona, Florida and Texas – my home state – if done poorly, reopening can lead to another surge.

GW’s plan may layout the measures officials will take to prevent the spread of the virus, but people will die or suffer no matter what. The GW community must be prepared to grapple with that brutal, morbid reality, and students must work to protect their peers, faculty and staff when they flood campus streets again.

The University has not publicly announced a plan to support grieving students should a friend or loved one pass away from COVID-19, nor has it explained how a course will continue – never mind be graded – should a professor or teaching assistant be unable to continue their work because of the virus. GW has failed to communicate academic expectations for students who contract the disease – surely, students who present symptoms, not to mention those on ventilators, cannot be expected to complete their work on time. Attendance, for example, should not count toward a final grade. There is essentially no coronavirus-adjusted grading policy, and there absolutely must be.

While I am not living on campus, I do not envy the students who are. Coming back to Foggy Bottom, even if the move-in process is stretched across two weeks, will almost assuredly spread the virus. Students coming back from states with high-infection rates like Arizona, Florida and Texas risk contracting the disease on their journeys. Once back on campus, students and their parents will definitely use the elevators to bring in their belongings, and being stuck in a confined, poorly ventilated space will undoubtedly spread the disease. Officials must encourage students to stay home if they are unable to provide safe housing accommodations.

And that’s just what the lead up to the semester will look like. I cannot imagine going to my 11:15 a.m. classes stuffed into an elevator in District House, Munson or Francis Scott Key halls in the middle of a pandemic. The stairs during the rush to class will certainly not be much better for social distancing. And living in any one of the doubles I’ve inhabited would make keeping six feet apart from roommates next to impossible. While the plan officials have detailed established that beds will be at least six feet apart in every room, it is unrealistic to expect that sleeping in the same room as someone else does not count as exposure should one’s roommate be infected.

Foot traffic to and from classes creates bottlenecks of people around entryways. Buildings like Gelman Library have only so many doors, and every door represents a high-touch surface. Coordinating entering and exiting classrooms while abiding by social distancing guidelines will no doubt prove next to impossible, with students often waiting in the hallway before class. Between clogged halls and not enough doors, even if the University effectively implements its social distancing plan for classrooms, entering and leaving classes presents a very real risk.

The plan put forth by GW also states that students will have limited access to residence halls, allowing only students who live in the building to enter. While this is a good, practical step in theory, enforcing it seems difficult and would seem to risk more students’ health. There are too few Students Access Monitors as it stands, meaning the rule would not matter much if they are not present to enforce it. If anyone is going put this rule into effect, it should not be students who risk their health to do so.

The University has yet to say how they expect students to conduct themselves with regard to nightlife. Parties in residence halls would seem to be off the table. But it is ludicrous to expect resident advisers to break up parties, as would be the norm. RAs are there to help residents but should not be forced to risk their health and safety to do so. Plus, they applied for their positions before the pandemic broke out – GW should not ask them, especially those who are at high risk of severe symptoms from the virus, to interact with large crowds of students.

More importantly, the University cannot ask working students to quit their jobs. Those who interact frequently with the public, like students working in retail or at restaurants, are at a higher risk of contracting the disease. There is no bubble campus, and we cannot lull ourselves into believing that Foggy Bottom is totally safe and isolated even after students return.

With all of these risks – which administrators and planners must have weighed when deciding to bring students back to campus – it is absolutely vital that each and every student do the utmost to protect themselves and our community. At a minimum, mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing will save lives. It will be tempting to go to bars or parties in a District affinity, but we all must take extraordinary measures to protect one another. With thousands of people returning from all over the world, it is not a question of if someone will contract the disease, but when and how many.

In spite of these drawbacks, I am ready to come back to campus. I desperately miss my friends, some of whom I will not have seen in eight months. After just a week of courses abroad and throughout online finals, I miss in-person instruction. But I fear for my health and that of my friends and my community as a whole. We must demand that officials provide answers to health- and academic-related questions.

Matthew Zachary, a rising senior majoring in international affairs, is a columnist.

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