Guest columnist Tom Gardner: Welcoming students back: What risk level is tolerable?

  • The University of Massachusetts campus on June 30.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Language matters. So does independent, critical thinking. You are about to board a ship for your much-anticipated Caribbean cruise. One last check on your weather app shows you are about to head straight into a hurricane.

Are you reassured by the captain’s announcement that the crew is taking “all precautions” to assure your safety? Or do you make an independent assessment of the situation and stay ashore?

Amherst is about to board that cruise ship, and I am not talking about hurricanes. My radar shows a storm of more than 15,000 students coming back to UMass, many from states where the coronavirus rate is spiking. We read that a “high-level working group” has been formed to monitor virus issues. (“UMass return group formed,” Bulletin, Aug. 7)

What are virus issues? Town Manager Paul Bockelman is reported as saying, “... students living on campus and off will contribute to an increase in coronavirus infections and possible spread in the community.” Translation: bringing the students back right now is going to kill people. How many deaths will it take for UMass to reverse course and send everyone home? What kind of further viral spread will that cause? What is the acceptable level of fatalities from this dangerous experiment?

In full disclosure, I teach at another area university that is welcoming students back to campus and offering some hybrid and in-person classes. I will teach remotely, as will most everyone in my department, but others will teach in person. As with UMass, residential advisors, facilities and maintenance employees, dining service workers, and others will have to be there in person. How many will get sick?

Money over health?

UMass Amherst announced some time ago that all classes (other than some lab and studio classes) will be online. So, why try to fill the dorms?

Is it the same reason that cruise ship will depart in spite of the weather forecast? Money, perhaps? Do bond issues need to be paid off? Will the budget take a huge hit in a state that refuses to adequately support public higher education? Will there be jobs lost?

So, then, let us be honest in the use of language. We are talking about a calculated number of avoidable deaths as a trade-off for economic gain, or at least cutting economic losses. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who are trying to figure out how to do this safely, but I do question the judgment of those decision makers who are authorizing the ship to take off at full speed. I have often referred to our lengthy faculty discussions about seat arrangements, air flow, cleaning, etc. as being roughly akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Plenty of vacant seats by the orchestra, sir.

Large organizations do not change course easily, and they tend to validate each other. Back in March and April, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued guidelines, which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) largely adopted, recommending respectively three to six feet of separation and hand-washing to avoid transmission of COVID-19.

A few scientists pointed out at the time those guidelines were based on old science (a 1934 lab experiment, for instance), and they failed to incorporate the current state of science about viral transmission.

Recently, 238 scientists signed a letter to the WHO pleading with them to reconsider their guidelines. What was the major flaw they were concerned about? WHO failed to appreciate the likely spread of the disease through aerosolized transmission. That is, they issued the social distancing rule based on the approximate distance that larger droplets may travel from a cough before dropping to the ground.

These dissenting scientists know, however, from studies over the past three decades, that smaller droplets can become airborne and travel distances of 12 to 20 feet depending on air currents. They can also stay in the air for hours. Those smaller microbes, especially when someone is exposed to them over a longer period of time (like an hour-long class period in an enclosed space) can provide the viral load necessary to cause a COVID infection.

Some studies suggest their smaller size enables them to travel further down in the lungs, causing potential lung and organ damage long after the patient survives an infection. They also more easily escape around the edges of most masks. Just breathing is sufficient for an infection to spread, but singing, talking, laughing, etc. will increase the spread.

Well, what about testing and contact tracing? The experts advising schools say testing every two to three days, with results in less than 48 hours, is essential for detection. Estimates range from 20% to 60% of cases coming from asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

So, yes, testing (even with a high percentage of false negatives) is essential, and immediately contacting anyone who had been in the presence of someone testing positive is vital to containing the spread.

Will UMass be testing at that level of frequency? Can it afford to? Can it identify everyone who was at the party last weekend? My school will test students once at the beginning of the semester, which is essentially a futile exercise. Faculty and staff are on their own.

Baystate Medical Center last week reported 40 new cases of COVID-19 from one staff member returning from a hot-spot state. So what happens to a town that has been highly responsible in preventing the spread of this virus when more than 15,000 young people return, many from viral hot spots? Can “rules” and “precautions” prevent community spread? Is this really a population and age group that can be expected to follow all the rules about social distancing and masks all the time? Who enforces those rules, especially off campus?

Are the rules that stem from WHO and CDC guidelines, which ignore aerosolized transmission, actually adequate to prevent spread of this virus, especially in closed spaces like classrooms, dormitories and off-campus parties?

Remote learning

Remote learning and teaching may not be a perfect solution for everyone, but I have to question how the disadvantages compare to risking human life at this stage of the pandemic. Perhaps a small number of students need to be housed on campus due to their special circumstances, but that does not explain a wholesale invitation for students to return.

We also have to remember this pandemic has hit communities of color and those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale disproportionately. So “community spread” is not an even-handed phenomenon.

Until we have a level of immunity from a widely distributed vaccine, probably through at least the spring semester of 2021, we should be doing all we can to offer quality remote learning experiences, and we should not be throwing thousands of young people together while we cross our fingers that the “precautions” being taken will work. They won’t. It is easier and safer to keep the ship in port than it is to turn it around.

Of course, we wouldn’t be facing this crisis if we had been blessed with the kind of national leadership that allowed other countries to get the pandemic under control. We rightfully point the finger at Donald Trump and the governors who opened their states too early, dismissing the public health measures necessary to stem the growth of the virus.

But what about our own neighboring institutions of higher education, where science-based and independent, critical thinking are so highly valued? Can they reconsider and bring this community and their students back to a safe harbor? Or has this ship sailed into the life-threatening storm?

Tom Gardner is chair of the Department of Communication at Westfield State University and lives in Amherst.