As the fall semester approaches, university administrators are facing the difficult decision of how (and if) to reopen during a global pandemic. Currently, plans for the fall semester range from remote lectures, to “hybrid” classes, to a completely in-person semester. One thing that all of these have in common, however, is that they are temporary and can change on a moment’s notice. The COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve, and with a continually increasing trajectory of cases (and lack of vaccine), fall is looking more uncertain than ever. UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, is currently planning to take a middle course, with a mix of remote and in-person classes, a shortened semester, and strict social distancing guidelines.
There are many important factors that colleges must consider when thinking about a return to campus. Many small liberal arts colleges are facing complete closure due to the sheer financial shock of the coronavirus. Four-year institutions fear significant drops in enrollment if students opt for community college or deferred enrollment in lieu of paying full tuition for a semester taught remotely. Furthermore, the recent declaration by ICE that international students must have in-person classes or leave the country has thrown another wrench into the process. International students at schools that have opted for a remote semester now have to consider transferring to a different institution or deferring the semester completely. As of July 15, 2020, however, this rule has been rescinded, however international students still face significant hurdles for re-enrollment. As a result, colleges and universities must choose between their survival or the safety of their community. While the choice may seem obvious from a third-party point of view, it is a painful decision for all involved. Larger public universities such as UNC may not experience the level of financial distress as smaller schools, however, its revenue losses may total hundreds of millions.
One department that stands to lose significant revenue is athletics. Particularly at larger schools with popular athletics programs, the loss of a football season will cost them millions in revenue and advertising. At what point, however, is this ethically irresponsible? The University of Houston, for example, brought back their football team for workouts. Shortly thereafter, players tested positive for the coronavirus and the workouts were shut down. UT-Austin reported that over a dozen players tested positive for the coronavirus, with even more asymptomatic and in self-quarantine. The Ivy League recently announced the cancellation of all fall sports, and the Patriot League followed shortly thereafter. Whether this is part of an upcoming trend or an outlier still remains to be seen, however, it is important to note that the Ivy League was the first conference to cancel their spring semester sports. Meanwhile many students and athletic directors elsewhere have reported significant pressure to resume athletic programs.
At UNC, the football program makes up over a third of athletic revenue, and Kenan Stadium hosts hundreds of thousands of fans every year. Football players have been brought back to campus for voluntary workouts. This has drawn serious criticism from students and community members worried that the colleges are placing financial gains over the safety of their players. UNC is following the guidelines set out by the NCAA and released that nearly 10% of athletes/coaches/staff returning to campus as of July 8, 2020, had tested positive for COVID-19, causing the suspension of their voluntary workout program. UNC athletics was already under fire over comments by Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham, who tweeted that he was unable to understand “how and why racism polarizes our society.” This began a conversation about the entrenchment of white supremacy in UNC athletics, which has a majority Black student population but a nearly all-white leadership staff. That the leadership of UNC Athletics is willing to put their athletes’ health at risk for the sake of profit is telling, and restarted the conversation about systemic racism in athletics that began with the 2018 academic scandal.
So how should colleges weigh each consequence of returning to school in the fall? Is a premature opening worth risking the spring semester? At what point do real economic losses outweigh the potential for campus-wide outbreaks? Ethically, the safety of the university community should remain the most important criteria when considering reopening. However, for many schools, the financial ramifications of staying closed may be too much to handle. Professor Jim Thomas at UNC has been reflecting on what it would take for the University to reopen successfully, highlighting open communication, trust, and support for the most vulnerable groups on campus, particularly low-wage workers. All of these considerations, and more, are crucial for ensuring whether or not the reopening of college campuses in the fall is truly the best possible decision.