Editor’s note: All opinion pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author.
On March 11, President Wendy Raymond announced via email that Haverford would be switching to online learning, a decision that would later on be extended for the rest of the semester. She spoke of minimizing the risk to Haverford’s community, and called Haverford students to reflect on our Haverfordian principles of care and concern, not only for ourselves but also for those around us and indeed “for the benefit of all humanity”. At the time, there were 1,267 total cases of coronavirus in the United States, 16 of which were in Pennsylvania. Today, there are over 60,000 new cases of coronavirus every day in the US, of which 1,000 are from Pennsylvania. So my question is: what can be used to justify a mass-return to campus when, quite obviously, conditions have not improved, but instead worsened? Could the reasoning behind our return stem from wrong priorities on the part of the college?
Students are understandably looking forward to the day they can return to campus—after being cooped up at home for so many months, who can blame them? But there comes a point when we must ask ourselves whether the excitement of returning to campus is enough to justify the immense health risks of being in close quarters with so many students from across the globe.
“Students will all be tested!”, “Social distancing guidelines will be put in place!”, “Libraries and other facilities will be operating at reduced capacity!”: these are used as evidence of a prudent return to campus. All of these measures have been put in place to help students be safe—because, obviously, being away from peers, in a remote relationship with fellow students, is the safest way to be. But this reasoning seems to have been the whole point of us going online in March, right?
I think that we also need to ask ourselves what the campus experience is going to be like in the fall. We’ve already seen that measures include limited off-campus events, discouraged travel (even into the town we are literally based in), and reduced social opportunities on campus. If the main reason people are returning to campus is to be back in a fun and sociable environment, don’t these necessary measures mean that coming to campus isn’t even worth it?
Moreover, will these guidelines even be effective? Does Haverford expect that every student is going to follow them to the letter? Do they not realise that the main reason a lot of people have for wanting to be on campus is purely for the social aspects?
Fortunately, we have a case study: the students like myself who have remained on campus over the last few months. Is Haverford really naive enough to think that there has been no mingling, no clandestine parties, and no snuck-in hookups/friends from off-campus? Sure, there are people who have taken every precaution to avoid exposure, but this is not the type of thing that only needs the cooperation of some, or even most. These guidelines require every student to follow them. Is that something Haverford can guarantee?
Truthfully, they can’t. Instead, students are going to have to trust each other to follow the rules. But if this trust isn’t enough, what’s going to happen? Is Haverford going to force people not following guidelines to finish the semester off remotely? How will these people be found out? At the end of the day, this is not something people can self-report; there is no easy remedy for potential exposure.
Understandably, there is a large desire to do classes somewhere other than home. Many students have found that it is far more difficult to concentrate and be effective when we study/work in the same place that we live, but I think that people don’t realise that this will still be an issue we face on campus. Sure, there will be some people who have mainly in-person classes, but there will also be people who have half or more of their classes online.
I stayed on campus when we went online in March, under similar conditions to those that the whole campus will be living under in the fall. Unfortunately, I hated it. I still had the same issues of not being able to focus, despite being in the complete silence of my apartment and having the whole floor to myself. How are people possibly going to manage when they are cramped in Gum rooms without AC or in Tritton/Kim where the walls are super thin?
We also must not forget those students who have pre-existing health conditions that mean they are unable to return to campus. They are either being forced to do classes online, or take a semester, or year, out of their studies. Giving people the choice to stay home is great, but it must also be acknowledged that there is a group of students who have had no choice in this decision: it has been made for them by circumstances outside of their control.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that campus, to many, is a safe space. For numerous reasons, campus is a lot safer than elsewhere for a lot of students. There is no doubt that these students should be allowed on campus in the fall, simply because being on campus is a lot safer than their home life. And there are those who physically would not be able to return home if the campus closed, like international students whose home countries still have closed borders. If the campus has to close due to the actions of a few people, what will happen to these students? Can Haverford guarantee that they will be allowed to stay?
And in the vein of closing mid-semester, how, in any universe, can Haverford hold the constant threat of closing over people’s heads? It is still entirely possible that after all of these precautions and safety measures, Haverford will have to send out another broadcast saying “Sorry! We tried! Back to fully online again! Good luck!”. To many, the possibility of closing at any given moment is worse than the debate over whether or not we should return at all.
I think that there comes a point when we must question Haverford’s reasoning in deciding to open to all students. Is it really because that is what is best for us? Is it perhaps Haverford’s own need to generate a level of income in order to maintain its status (I’m sure nobody has failed to notice the increase in prices this year)? Or is it simply that Haverford has different priorities?
In an email shared with the Haverford college community, Dean Bylander stated that the reasoning behind us coming back to Haverford largely stemmed from an understanding of the importance of education. Personally, I’d like to see Haverford prioritizing the health, safety, and equal circumstances of its students instead, and focusing on improving remote circumstances, rather than risking the students’ health with a semester in person, that goes against the advice of many other institutions, as well as health professionals.