OP/ED: Why aren’t we talking about this? Colleges/Universities “welcoming back” students in mere weeks as COVID cases rise

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here is the letter that my daughter, Kalli Swanson, wrote this week, and sent to the President of George Fox University, the state Board of Education and the Governor’s office. There has been lots of attention given to K-12 schools opening or not opening, but what about colleges? Kalli could find little guidance or information, and we’ve always encouraged her to speak up and take action — “be the change.”
To whom it may concern,
My name is Kalli Swanson and I am a senior at George Fox University in the nursing program. I’m writing to you because I’m growing more frustrated on a daily basis regarding the lack of conversation, communication, and understanding that I feel is needed about the start of fall semesters at Oregon’s colleges and universities. It seems as though we are stuck in this “wait and see” attitude, which keeps thousands in limbo and is simply unacceptable.

Oregon Health Authority released a new model for COVID-19 last week, and they are projecting cases to increase by more than 10% within the next 6 weeks. However, what I think most people aren’t taking into consideration is the fact that about a month from now, tens of thousands of students from all over the country will be coming to Oregon to continue their journey or start their journey towards attaining a degree. Tens of thousands of students who just want to get back into the groove of attending lectures, clinicals, internships, the list goes on. I’m one of these students – I miss my professors, my routine, my classmates, and everything that comes with being a college student. But I think right now, based off of how awful our country has handled and continues to handle the pandemic, it would be irresponsible and endangers the health of students and faculty to open up campuses again. Opening up campuses again doesn’t just mean we open up classrooms again to students; it means we are opening up our communities, our vulnerable communities, to students from all over the country. Health and safety should be the number one consideration, not the desire for tuition dollars; and continuing to wait impacts our mental health.

I know that it is difficult to make any decisions right now. I get that, but I find it disrespectful and hurtful to be somewhat in the dark about the situation. Oregon Board of Education (and the media) has been talking about primary education and their potential plans for weeks. But is there any conversation about colleges & universities? Is there any conversation about tens of thousands of students flooding the state in a few weeks, potentially bringing numerous new cases to our already overwhelmed hospitals and facilities? Not every state in our country is taking such a proactive & responsible approach to controlling COVID-19 as Oregon, and that potentially means another rise in cases as these students come back to classes. Has any university sat down and asked students if they would feel safe to be in the classroom again? Are we looking at the mental health affects of going back to classes?

I understand the potential ideas of wearing masks in classrooms, social distancing, limiting the number of students in each lecture/class, etc. But the added stress, paranoia, and anxiety that accompanies COVID-19 will without a doubt impact performance from students. Not only that, if we do start classes in person, and then end up going online part way through the semester (repeat Spring term), meaning we have to readjust our lives again. I’m frustrated that it feels as though this fact isn’t being taken into consideration. Our mental health is already in a tumultuous state but then you add classes back into the mix, plus potential loved ones becoming sick with COVID-19 if not ourselves, financial stress, the last thing that we need is having to sit in a classroom, fearful that we could be getting sick. And what happens if we do get sick? What happens if our professors get COVID? What happens if someone in a dorm gets COVID? Do people from other states have to quarantine for 2 weeks? The amount of questions that are flooding my brain with no answers is unacceptable. And I can’t possibly be the only college student with these concerns. Have you surveyed students about their preferences – online, in-class or hybrids? I haven’t seen any such survey.

No matter what decision is made, people will be upset. That seems to be a pattern as of late in our country. But the bottom line is that if colleges and universities decide to open, we are opening the door for even more cases of COVID-19 to flood into our beautiful state and our ever-vigilant but vulnerable communities. I no longer will sit idly by, waiting for someone to say something. I’m starting this conversation because I feel like it deserves to be brought to attention. Just last week, the Washington Post reported about a COVID-19 outbreak in fifteen fraternity houses at University of Washington in Seattle. The article also talked about how the University of Southern California announced that they are offering mostly all virtual learning and urging students to find off-campus housing – “given the continuing safety restrictions and limited densities permissible on campus, our undergraduate students will almost exclusively be online in the fall term, and on-campus housing and activities will be limited. We believe we can keep students, researchers, and faculty safe with our low-density plan.” Obviously, USC is an exceptionally large school, but I think the risks are all the same no matter how big the campuses are. University of Arizona is also looking into changing their fall plans due to the increase in cases and full ICU’s. Another spike in COVID-19 cases was seen just 5 days ago at University of California, Berkeley. The UC Berkeley Health Services director, Anna Harte, explained that “at the rate we are seeing increases in cases, it’s becoming harder to imagine bringing our campus community back in the way we are envisioning. The increase in cases across the country and locally are a powerful reminder of how contagious this disease is and how quickly the disease can spread.” The head of the CDC reported just yesterday (7/14) that “the fall and winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health.”

Yet, it will be safe to allow students to go back to classes? I really don’t believe so, and George Fox (and other Oregon colleges and universities) continuing down the path to bring students into classrooms is short-sighted and dangerous.

I’m frustrated, irritated, hurt and confused as to why we aren’t being asked what we think, that we aren’t being told what’s going on. As I was writing this letter, I received an email regarding my tuition for the fall semester and another wave of frustration hit me. I’m thankful that I am financially stable and won’t have any problem paying tuition this semester. However, there are thousands of students who aren’t nearly as blessed as I am. Why isn’t there any tuition adjustment based on the current situation in our country? Again, I feel as if nobody genuinely cares about how students are feeling or what we think is the best way to approach starting classes back up in the age of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon. I’m eager and willing to help in any way I can to improve communication & conversations about what’s best for all communities.