Opinion | Point: Universities should not bring students back to campus in the fall

By Nate Kohler, Contributing Staff Member

This column is part of a point-counterpoint series. Read the other side of the argument here.

As is the case with just about every other college student in the country, I would give nearly anything to be able to return normally to campus in the fall.

With the prospect of returning “normally” completely out the window due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we must look at what will be sacrificed in order to continue student life as a shell of what it once was, and if it is truly worth it at all. Pitt should protect students, faculty and the community by moving classes entirely online in the fall and providing all students with an equal education.

First and foremost, Pitt and universities across the country must become comfortable with the prospect of outbreaks and students becoming ill. This is a fact of our shared life. People will become ill — some deathly ill — as we try to return to our previous lives. Many places that have reopened or plan on reopening have become quite comfortable with this, and it has been seen as something that will definitely happen as a consequence of reopening. Exchanging the health of students and the community at large for being able to operate normally as a university is simply not worth it in the slightest.

One could also argue that since Pitt will allow students to attend classes either in person or virtually, this gives students the option to avoid risking their health while still providing them the education that they have paid for. But even though Pitt has made this an option for students, I predict there will be quite a large number of students who will feel pressured to return to campus regardless of the risks posed to their health. Maybe this is due to the idea of returning to their previous life as a student, being free from family and living life with their friends, or even the idea that an online education is not close to the same education as a tangible, in-person experience.

The argument can be made for many restaurants, shops and workplaces that continuing the shutdown will result in the complete collapse of that specific business. But with many universities, the theory of losing the enrollment of both new and returning students would amount to tens of millions of dollars being lost. While tens of millions of dollars is an astronomical amount of money to the average person, and even the average business, it is just a fraction of the money Pitt has to work with. Ultimately, Pitt will not be truly crippled during this financial loss by any means.

Therefore, the idea that Pitt requires this money to keep the institution operating is utterly ridiculous. All students should realize this is less about the institution continuing to operate and more about the high-ranking — and high-paid — officials maintaining their pay and status. If Pitt tries to claim that it must cut funding, we must realize that the first people to get hurt will be vulnerable nontenure-stream faculty and lower-level employees, while a bloated class of highly paid officials will likely not be touched. Many important contract workers across campus have also seen layoffs and furloughs. In order to sustain these financial losses, many top officials should feel obligated to take further pay cuts.

Pitt is planning on putting numerous precautions in place in order to prevent as many students from getting sick as possible. Regardless of whether or not these precautions will be effective, it is widely known that college-aged people around the world are not the most disciplined group of citizens. As someone that has grown up with their peers documenting their lives on social media, I can attest firsthand that what feels like nearly every young person I see on social media has not been following even the most basic of guidelines for slowing the spread of the pandemic.

This is a consistent issue around Oakland and the City, as students have been packing bars, restaurants and streets, many times without masks. There have been lines stretching down blocks for the reopening of bars, also with very few masks being worn, if at all. This is not just a bar or restaurant problem either, as house parties and large gatherings where hundreds of people stand shoulder to shoulder in small, cramped rooms have also continued like nothing has changed. This means even those under the age of 21 will still have plenty of opportunities to be exposed to the virus.

If this is a problem in the summer, when much of the student body is not on campus, how many more students can we expect to expose themselves unnecessarily to the virus every weekend? Can we really expect young students, especially first-years, to refrain from going out during their first year away from home? And when they do, can we expect them to wear a mask while under the pressure of “looking cool,” especially now that wearing a mask has become a political statement to many around the country? We can look at other places around the country where this sort of thing has already negatively affected the community, like in Mississippi, where a large cluster of cases has been linked to college fraternity parties. I would bet on students weighing risks and still deciding to go out en masse.

Knowing that some college students are unnecessarily exposing themselves to the virus in exchange for a good time drinking or hanging out with friends, some will make the argument that young people have less of a chance to become seriously sick with COVID-19, and even if they do, they have a lesser chance of dying. This is partially true — young and healthy people are usually less susceptible to the worst effects of the virus and are less likely to die from its symptoms. With that said, college students are not all the same. Even a young and healthy student could be sick for months with the virus, and it has caused permanent lung damage in some, while necessitating a lung transplant in others. Not all college students can afford to catch COVID-19 and fall ill. Both literally and health-wise.

While young, many college students do not have perfect immune systems. Many are immunocompromised in one way or another, which can make the virus extremely deadly. There are a lot of young and otherwise healthy people that have had cancer at some point in their lives or have diabetes or other diseases that they have had to live with their entire lives. Then there are students who are struggling with the financial side of attending college and would not be able to afford health care if they were to fall ill, perhaps even extremely ill.

Ultimately, this should be less of a planning issue for Pitt and other universities and more of a moral quandary. Pitt should not expose students to the virus for access to an in-person education. Instead, the University should move classes online at least for the fall semester, regardless of how badly I, or anyone else, personally wishes to continue with my life on campus as a student.

Responsible students, professors and employees should not have to be at the mercy of those who choose not to follow guidelines. This is especially true considering the fact that this is seemingly a financial issue for Pitt, rather than a health issue.

Nate is the incoming multimedia editor at The Pitt News. Write to him at [email protected].