Cancel College

Reopening universities will accomplish little and endanger many.

Getty / The Atlantic

Despite the continued spread of the coronavirus, many colleges around the country plan to welcome students back to campus over the coming weeks.

Colleges want to reopen for good, nontrivial reasons. Administrators believe that most students learn better when they are physically assembled in the same place. And they know that the American college experience, at any rate, has long been about more than the classroom. It allows students to cut the umbilical cord, make friends with like-minded people, and pursue extracurricular activities—all of which are much harder to do if your freshman year consists of joining Zoom sessions from your parents’ basement. Many universities also face serious financial problems. If they are unable to reopen this fall, some may collapse.

But if colleges go ahead, they will endanger the lives of students, staff, faculty, and those who live in the surrounding communities. Reopening colleges is the wrong thing to do.

Many colleges have come up with imaginative ways to reopen while striving to contain the virus.

Most plans involve a constellation of the same core elements: lecture classes in big outside tents, or no lectures at all, a two-week quarantine for students upon their arrival on campus, a testing regime to identify cases of COVID-19 as early as possible, distancing guidelines that severely restrict social events, and a shortened term that ends at Thanksgiving to avert the risk posed by students who return to campus after spending a few days with their families all across the country.

But these plans all founder on the same basic problem: Most college students are at an age when the urge to socialize is especially strong. Whatever the rules may say, young people will have parties, hook up, and leave campus to have fun.

Some colleges propose to deal with this problem punitively. Syracuse University, for example, has vowed to punish students with draconian penalties if they violate the university’s strict distancing guidelines. Others believe they can trust their students to behave in accordance with the greater good. The University of Kentucky, for example, has incorporated a vow to maintain proper social distance into its honor code. But neither approach is foolproof.

And the consequences if—or rather when—the coronavirus starts to spread will probably be disastrous. As a Harvard University official told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell back in March, “The dorms are cruise ships.” Even if sophisticated testing uncovers a case of COVID-19 within a few days of a student contracting it, that student is likely to have come into contact with dozens of others in the intervening days.

Therefore, many colleges will likely, within weeks of reopening, place a quickly expanding set of students under lockdown. And if these measures fail, the colleges will close on short notice. At that point, thousands of students—many of them infected with COVID-19—will board trains and planes to go home, spreading the virus to their families.

If colleges reopen, kids from parts of the country with high case counts will, inevitably, travel to parts of the country with low case counts—and bring their home-state problems with them. This is why the biggest threat posed by reopening colleges is not to students, faculty, or staff, but to the surrounding community.

According to the latest figures, for example, Addison County, Vermont, has virtually vanquished COVID-19. In the past seven days, they have had only two new cases. But Addison County is home to Middlebury College, which, according to its website, hosts students from 49 states. When young people from coronavirus hot spots such as Georgia, Florida, and Texas arrive for class, Addison County’s infection rate will almost certainly grow.

Communities in high- and average-case-count states might not feel comfortable welcoming students, either. As the mayors of four North Carolina towns argue in a letter to decision makers at the University of North Carolina, “There is high anxiety” about “thousands of university students moving into the community from all over the state and country, many coming from areas that lack the same requirements we have locally for slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

The letter also points to a bitter irony: While UNC is determined to reopen, local public schools have decided to remain fully online for the time being: “It is hard,” the mayors write, “to feel comfortable with this contrast.”

Many universities face the impossible choice between bankruptcy and community health. And millions of Americans are in the same spot: Every day, they must choose between going to work and courting infection, and staying at home and risking financial ruin.

The solution is the same in both cases: The federal government must take the measures necessary to contain the virus—including orders to shut down businesses and universities as needed. But when businesses are told to close and workers are furloughed from their jobs, the government must also make sure they can still pay their bills.