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Towson’s COVID-19 lesson: Today’s correct answer can be tomorrow’s wrong one | COMMENTARY

Towson University announced this past week it will hold classes online for the rest of the fall semester and close its campus to most in-person classes as well as its residence halls, after a significant number of students tested positive for COVID-19 just before students returned to classes Monday.
Towson University announced this past week it will hold classes online for the rest of the fall semester and close its campus to most in-person classes as well as its residence halls, after a significant number of students tested positive for COVID-19 just before students returned to classes Monday. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

First, a measure of sympathy to the parents and guardians of Towson University first-year students, who just took a roller-coaster ride. On Aug. 22, they were told all classes would be conducted by computer for the first week, but their students could show up anyway. So many packed up their kids, along with bed linens, towels and Velcro tape (if you have to ask why, you’ve never decorated a dorm room) for the trip to college. Classes started Monday, but then on Wednesday, they were informed their son or daughter or ward would be coming home by Sept. 4.

Imagine the questions that must have entered their minds: Was my child exposed to COVID-19? What’s going to happen next? What does this mean for the quality of education or its cost? When Towson President Kim Schatzel writes that this was a “most difficult decision for me,” one is inclined to believe her. There’s likely no shortage of upset whether from parents, faculty, and staff still coming her way. Even some neighbors are annoyed by the prospect of more students living in off-campus housing.

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Certainly, it’s not difficult, in hindsight, to second-guess the school’s initial decision to bring so many of its approximately 23,000 students back on campus with a mix of 15% in-person and 85% online classes, given how that proved untenable so quickly. The ground shifted when free on-campus testing uncovered a spike in cases. As of Thursday, at least 124 students, faculty and staff had tested positive. A lot of colleges and universities across the country are doing their own backpedaling, some blaming super-spreader student parties; others, less obvious targets to explain the positive tests. In the case of Towson, no single event was established by contact tracing, so it’s been attributed to a more general off-campus community spread. Whatever the cause, the concerns were the same — a heightened health risk that Ms. Schatzel believes outweighed the benefits of in-person instruction and on-campus housing.

The lesson here is not that Towson’s initial call was the correct one. It turned out not to be. It’s not even that Towson adjusted to changing circumstances exactly right. Time will tell on that front. But rather, it’s more like there are no absolutely 100% perfect answers, at least none guaranteed to address changing circumstances. Had the school kept students away (especially with Maryland’s overall coronavirus positivity rates in decline), a lot of folks would have been second-guessing that call, too. Towson’s president had to balance competing interests. And then it had to reassess and do it again. That’s inconvenient. It’s aggravating. And it’s messy in a way that one doesn’t expect from a bunch of scholarly folks with advanced degrees. And that, fellow travelers in a once in a 100-year pandemic that none of us is likely to see again, is exactly the point.

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The discomfit we all feel these days is not just cabin fever, it’s the anxiety induced by all the uncertainty that accompanies the COVID-19 spread. In the coming weeks, a lot of institutions are going to face tough choices, not just colleges. Those private K-12 schools that believed they could conduct in-person classes safely? How about retailers? Restaurants? Even government services from postal delivery to trash collection. Schools may refund certain fees and billing associated with room and board, but the essential transaction of higher ed — we give them money, they provide knowledge — will seem imperfect, the education lesser, the cost perhaps too high. But imperfection is all we have right now.

So the lesson is to be nimble, be ready to change, to roll with the punches and, as we’ve stressed before, to be kind. Goodwill can be tough to muster in a political season that is expected to be especially bare-knuckled (and truth-challenged), but it’s the best advice we have. For now. Check in again tomorrow.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels, writer Peter Jensen and summer intern Anjali DasSarma — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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