In early March, with coronavirus infections spreading through communities across the US, universities like BGSU used spring break to send students home and transition to online learning. Since then, the multi-billion dollar question has been whether universities would be able to safely reopen in the fall without exposing students and communities to unnecessary risk.
In the absence of coherent and apolitical federal guidance, colleges spent the summer deciding whether to open, and how. Over the last few weeks, many have canceled or delayed reopening while others, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have tried and failed. Against this backdrop, parents and students alike are certainly wondering whether BG’s plan will be enough for a safe fall semester. As a BG Townie, Alumni, and biologist, there’s no question in my mind that this plan is not only destined to fail but will cost lives in the process.
Perhaps the most glaring problem is the lack of a coherent strategy for identifying and isolating infected students. As of move-in, the reopening FAQ states, “The University will be providing additional information on testing and contact tracing in the upcoming weeks.” I am not sure where or when this additional information will be posted, but from what I gather, the testing plan seems to consist of requiring students to monitor their symptoms with an app. If they exhibit symptoms, they’ll be sent a test and asked to quarantine until they test negative.
It doesn’t take much to see the flaw in this plan: young adults often experience little to no symptoms from COVID-19, yet remain able to spread it. Even when students are symptomatic, it requires that they recognize and honestly report what they’re experiencing. Students taking classes online and living off-campus have no need to disclose their symptoms and are completely out of view of the university’s testing apparatus.
Compare this approach with that of the University of Illinois-Champaign, which conducted 30,000 entry tests and found nearly 100 cases. While BGSU is smaller, it is almost certain that a few dozen Falcons are currently infected and evading the testing infrastructure. This may seem expensive, but it truly isn’t. St. Michael’s College in Vermont is implementing a full fall-semester testing program by charging $150 per student. To test 20,000 students and staff, this would work out to around $3 million dollars. By sheer coincidence, that’s effectively the cost of bribing 2,000 students to move off-campus for $1500 apiece.
Forcing students into off-campus housing is a mind-bogglingly bad use of funds during a pandemic. BGSU housing argued that this would reduce student density, but it’s not as if students simply disappear when they move off-campus. Many off-campus rentals house two or more students per unit, increasing rather than reducing contact between students. It also forces students onto buses or into carpools - further creating opportunities to spread disease. This move did not reduce student density, only university liability.
With all these untested students off-campus, the next problem that had to be solved was finding a way to curtail partying. The university ultimately decided to prevent partying by requiring students to sign a pledge and “banning” parties on and off-campus. This approach seems to ignore the fact that parties involving underage alcohol consumption have always been a violation of the law and student code, yet remain a part of campus life. It is laughable to think that new consequences will curtail partying enough to contain the spread of disease. Instead, this policy will likely drive parties indoors where the risk of spreading the virus is considerably higher. It's also certain to frustrate attempts at contact tracing, with students fearful to admit they attended such an illegal party. Notably, gatherings would not be as big of a concern if there were a mechanism for quickly identifying and isolating sick students.
As much as the university is attempting to keep students from gathering indoors off-campus, they seem dead-set on bringing them together indoors and on campus. They tout that 70% of classes will have an in-person component. Facilities that could be easily closed, such as gyms and common areas, remain open. Most egregiously, they seem dead-set on having purely entertaining indoor on-campus activities. During move-in, they held indoor events with a “Comedic Juggler” and a showing of the movie “Knives Out”. These events should have been cancelled, streamed or at the very least held outside. The extent to which the university seems to be prioritizing student experience over safety is unjust. No amount of cleaning and physical distancing can match the effectiveness of cancelling unnecessary indoor gatherings.
The university likely has a few dozen ongoing infections, a powder-keg of off-campus housing and a severely limited ability to detect community spread. They’re compounding all of this with ineffective pledges and policies that encourage indoor parties and frustrate contact-tracing. At the same time, they’re hypocritically risking spread to ensure the students remain entertained with unnecessary and indoor events and facilities.
Where does this all go? Over the next few weeks, those initial cases will multiply and spread quietly through the off-campus population. A few on-campus cases will be detected, giving the impression that it is manageable. Unchecked community spread will only become obvious when it’s too late and has begun to spread outside the student population. At this point, the university will almost certainly pivot to an online-only model sending students home and leaving the town to deal with the outbreak. They have clearly prepared for this as their FAQ has more information about how refunds are not possible than it does about testing for the virus.
BG seems to be on a grim path, but there is still time to turn things around. BGSU must immediately invest in testing every single student, faculty and staff member living in Bowling Green. Existing cases need to be isolated to give the university a fresh start to the semester. Aggressive, widespread testing, tracing and isolating must continue throughout the fall. Without all this, it is unreasonable to believe the university can keep the disease contained.