GW’s indoor mask mandate and vaccine requirement have previously been successful in limiting breakthrough cases and campus-wide outbreaks, but the recent increase in COVID-19 cases prompted GW to introduce bi-monthly testing to prevent further infections. With the rapid spread of the Delta variant and the potential for more evasive variants to proliferate, potentially compromising the efficacy of vaccines, it is crucial that GW takes all necessary precautions to protect its students, faculty and staff. Moving to a hybrid system would reduce the likelihood of having to move GW’s operations fully remote while providing more adequate protection to GW’s most vulnerable community members.
Switching to hybrid learning like Rutgers University and the University of Hawai’i have done would allow for a significant portion of classes to introduce social distancing, a practice that has been proven to reduce transmission of the coronavirus. Classes near maximum seating capacity could move into larger lecture halls, while the largest classes on campus, typically those that are lecture-based and already lack significant student-teacher interaction, would be taught online. This would allow for a noticeable reduction in the amount of close contact between students, faculty and staff, meaning a decreased likelihood of students unknowingly spreading the virus. As coronavirus vaccines are not 100 percent effective at preventing transmission, with some studies finding that their efficacy is decreasing, minimizing unnecessary contact between students should be the University’s top priority.
Such a change would especially benefit immunocompromised students, as GW mandated that all students attend in-person classes without any accommodations. Because of the mandate, these students do not have the opportunity to avoid attending large classes, meaning that they must choose between prioritizing their own safety and prioritizing their academic competitiveness. As some members of the GW community are still unvaccinated, albeit less than five percent, immunocompromised students should not be compelled to attend crowded lectures that may jeopardize their health. Especially considering that a few dozen professors have been granted accommodations for reasons not limited to health concerns, it would be unjust to not at least consider a transition to a hybrid system. Moving GW’s largest classes online would allow for these students to distance themselves from others in their in-person classes, creating a more equitable learning environment.
If case numbers continue to rise, GW could eventually have no other option but to limit its in-person instruction. Undoubtedly, transitioning into hybrid learning would be much easier to execute if it is conducted early in the semester. With classes just getting started, students can still add and drop courses for another few weeks. Moving to a hybrid system now would allow for students to alter their schedules based on their preferences regarding in-person versus online instruction. If GW decides to wait, or if an outbreak forces classes to suspend in-person activity, the transition will be much more tumultuous, as students and faculty will be busier and a significant change in schedules would be more difficult to navigate at that point. Allowing the coronavirus to spread unabated throughout campus could even force a full-scale closure of campus akin to that of the March 2020 campus shutdown, a situation undoubtedly less favorable than reverting to a hybrid system.
It is also important to consider that, even with almost all students, faculty and staff vaccinated, meaning a reduced risk of serious illness and hospitalization, the presence of the coronavirus on campus presents a serious challenge for in-person classes in general. While students undergo the two-week quarantine required after a positive test, they oftentimes will watch lectures live via Zoom, forcing professors to divide their attention between in-person students and the Zoom call. With larger classes, students may not even have this option, meaning that they must make up for lost lecture time through other means. With tuition costs as high as they are, students should not have to worry about losing valuable time learning from GW’s renowned faculty. Moving to a hybrid system would reduce the inadvertent penalties placed on students who contract the coronavirus.
With the Delta variant accounting for nearly all of new coronavirus cases, despite comprising less than one percent of cases just five months ago, it would be unwise to rule out the possibility of a more dangerous variant overtaking Delta and causing an exponential rise in case numbers. While a fully in-person semester is certainly optimal, it is undeniably better to have some classes in-person rather than none at all. Moving GW’s largest classes online will allow for increased social distancing, a more equitable learning environment for immunocompromised students, and a lower likelihood of a campus reclosure in the future.
Michael DiFabrizio, a junior majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.
This article appeared in the September 13, 2021 issue of the Hatchet.