Should We Come Back?

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Ashlee Kothenbeutel

Like anyone else, I’ve experienced my fair share of challenges during this pandemic.  The quality of my sleep has been pretty lackluster, my family drives me up a wall sometimes, and, most of all, I miss my friends.  I miss cracking jokes at my fraternity’s weekly Chapter meeting.  I miss commiserating over the nasty food in Grand with my fellow RA’s.  Heck, I even miss just walking around outside on campus!  As a result of all the troubles we’ve been experiencing at home, it’s easy to want to count down the days until the fall semester starts.  After all, that’s when we’ll be going back, right?

Maybe, maybe not.  The reality of our current situation is that no one really knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone 3+ months from now.  Dr. Pestello recently sent out an email outlining the University’s plans for the fall semester, and, needless to say, things will undoubtedly be different even if we end up returning to campus.  Potential plans include an earlier start and end date for the fall semester, a “hybrid” scenario where part of the semester will be in-person and part of it will be virtual, or we could end up going virtual for the entire semester.

I guess the better question to ask isn’t if we’re going back to school, but rather should we go back to school.  After all, at the time of this writing public health experts are predicting a resurgence in cases around the time flu season hits, meaning that we’ll be forced to grapple with two deadly viruses simultaneously.  Could the risk of spreading COVID-19 outweigh the benefits we would receive from in-person instruction?

While most students at SLU would likely survive a bout with the virus, it’s important to remember a few things: (1) our campus is part of a larger community, the St. Louis community, (2) some students at SLU are immunocompromised and would be more at risk to succumb to the virus, and (3) SLU faculty and staff, many of whom are part of the at-risk population for suffering complications from being infected by COVID.

SLU likes to flaunt its service-oriented mission and its role within the greater St. Louis community.  But by returning to campus, we may very well be putting that community at risk.  Many SLU students live in off-campus apartment buildings, which they cohabitate with non-students.  Contact between day workers and students could result in infections being spread far and wide throughout the St. Louis area.  And, to top it all off, those that we could be jeopardizing live in impoverished or low-income areas that lack access to adequate medical and sanitary supplies.

Additionally, there are many SLU students who have compromised immune systems.  These students, if forced to make a decision between returning to campus and risking their lives or leaving SLU in exchange for safety/security at home, would be put in an unfair position that would force them to make a decision that they might later regret.  We must also consider those who have medical conditions but who also are unaware of their condition.  Examples include those with HIV, cancer, or asthma.

Lastly, it’s important to consider the effects that returning to campus would have on the faculty and staff.  A large portion of the people who work at SLU are 50 years or older.  This means that having class in-person could ultimately jeopardize their health.  This is compared to conducting a virtual class with minimal risk of exposure for the professor.  In terms of staff, workers on campus would also be disproportionately affected by a mass return to campus in the fall.  For example, janitors in the residence halls who normally handle trash pickup and general cleaning would have to take extra precautions not to unnecessarily expose themselves to students.  Cafeteria workers, who interact with students constantly, would also be at risk of contracting the infection.

For all of these reasons, I’m hesitant about asking for in-person classes in the fall.  Admittedly, this situation isn’t black-and-white.  The University will struggle financially regardless of what happens, and the negative economic impact of keeping campus closed on those who work there will be significant.  Either way, it’s too soon to make any decisions about how we’re going to proceed in the fall.  Ideally, I’d graduate as a senior at SLU alongside my friends and family a year from now.  That may not happen.  At this point, it may be better to put others before ourselves, relinquishing the high hopes we have for the fall and ultimately finding solace in the fact that this, too, will pass.