As GW consigned its students to another semester of virtual learning, many voiced their discontent and desires to return to campus on social media and through petitions. But every post arguing for campus reopening caused a barrage of angry replies from students, outraged that someone would dare advocate for our lives resuming again. Those wanting to return to campus are routinely branded online as selfish or callous, caring more about partying or Spring Break than the lives of those around them.
We should all agree that safety concerns are paramount and mourn every COVID-19 death that strikes our community. But this kind of emotional blackmail is disingenuous and needs to stop. Contrary to what is portrayed, many who support campus reopening do so in good faith – precisely because they believe it could be done safely, with the benefits far outweighing any costs and with every student and employee able to make the decision that’s best for them. Students, before publicly shaming those who ask to come back, should first take the time to listen and understand where these people may be coming from.
It is easy to look at the numbers and get alarmed at the prospect of reopening. After all, COVID-19’s mortality rate for the 20 to 49 age bracket is 0.02 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This implies seven deaths would occur if all 26,000 students and, say, 10,000 employees under 50 both came to campus and got COVID-19. Yet that scenario happening is practically impossible, as any sensible reopening would not invite the most vulnerable students or employees back, and there are countless effective campus safety measures GW can take. Many other universities, including four of our peer schools, have already reopened successfully with no fatalities and, seemingly, few recorded hospitalizations.
In light of this, the University community at minimum deserves an earnest dialogue about our reopening options. Since 94 percent of people dying from the virus have certain underlying health conditions, perhaps we could ask those with such conditions to stay home and give everyone else a choice to do so. By enforcing strict testing, distancing and masking protocols, we could have a good chance at preventing mass campus outbreaks. Maybe professors at high risk could remain online but opt to have in-person discussion sessions with teaching assistants. Or, we could think of innovative ways to minimize student contact with front line workers and others in the Foggy Bottom area. Of course, not all reopening ideas will turn out to be feasible – and we should debate and reject those that aren’t – but demonizing students who suggest them with honest intentions only makes them needlessly intimidated and afraid to speak up for themselves.
Perhaps more importantly, we should remember before calling someone “selfish” or “uncaring” that people have had their entire livelihoods, everything that they enjoy and find meaning in, completely upended for half a year now. People have had their academic and career trajectories, which they have worked hard over the years to build, thrown into uncertainty; and are going into often crippling debt only to watch online video lectures. People are isolated with nobody to interact with and are struggling with depression, mental illness and all the health problems associated with staying alone indoors. By all means, we should talk to others about why we think reopening is unviable, but there is no excuse for invalidating someone’s struggles and smearing them for trying to fix things.
If nothing else, the debate over reopening has clearly shown how beholden we are to a classic false assumption: that those we disagree with are not only wrong, but are somehow acting in bad faith or at least don’t care at all about people like us. This is far from the truth. No one is advocating for anyone to be forcibly put in danger. Students are simply asking for the right, if the risk of coming back is worth it for them, to be allowed to make that individual choice – provided that they follow strict rules to protect others, bear responsibility for any costs to themselves, and most importantly, respect the decisions of those who choose not to return to campus with them. It is not our place to vilify such people, especially when the risks of reopening can potentially be managed and the human cost of staying online is so high.
I understand, especially for those who have lost someone close to COVID-19, that it may feel like we should take every drastic measure possible to prevent even one more death. Those are completely valid feelings to have. But consider, before you write in anger, that many asking to reopen do so out of legitimate concern for everyone’s wellbeing. And while you may think someone is wrong on the merits, remember before personally berating them that, chances are, they are in a fraught situation and see coming back to campus as the only viable course of action. You yourself may not take a 1 in 5000 chance of death to start living outside of your bedroom again, but for many others, it would be a lifeline.
No one is saying they don’t care about you or your loved ones, only that they also value their own well-being – we need to start respecting that.
Filip Vachuda, a sophomore majoring in international affairs and economics, is an opinions writer.