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Universities should teach mostly online classes this fall semester | COMMENTARY

Shakia McKinnon of Baltimore listens to other students speak while taking part in ice breaker activities with other first year students during a pre-orientation event called McDaniel Local, at McDaniel College on Thursday, July 30. Some believe Maryland universities and colleges should have as few in-person classes as possible as the COVID-19 death toll continues to rise.
Shakia McKinnon of Baltimore listens to other students speak while taking part in ice breaker activities with other first year students during a pre-orientation event called McDaniel Local, at McDaniel College on Thursday, July 30. Some believe Maryland universities and colleges should have as few in-person classes as possible as the COVID-19 death toll continues to rise. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

When President Donald Trump ordered the ejection of all foreign students whose studies were completely online, several universities moved to thwart the order by scheduling hybrid (combined online and classroom) classes for the fall. Since President Donald Trump has withdrawn his order, some schools have moved almost fully online while many others have regrettably retained that hybrid schedule.

For instance, colleges in the Baltimore-Washington area are offering a hybrid of in-person and remote classes and will allow only a limited number of students in dorms, libraries and dining facilities.

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We all know that the likelihood of being infected with COVID-19 increases exponentially in parallel with the size of in-person classes. Surely every university’s first priority must be protecting its students, faculty and staff, as well as it’s own community and theirs, from suffering and death. Moreover, even universities so morally confused that they fail to see their obligation to protect students and employees from coronavirus may find themselves legally liable for the consequent suffering and death. Any institution which currently plans to hold fall classes in physical settings should reconsider before it is too late.

Some schools seem to be reassuring themselves with the erroneous belief that the low COVID-19 fatality rate in younger populations means that the risk of holding classes in physical classrooms is low. They have not taken into account that most young people are now living with their families and could carry infection back to older relatives. Indeed, a recent report documented that younger people were catching the virus during activities outside the home and transferring their infection to their older family members. Even if students recover from COVID-19, will they ever recover from feeling that they caused the death of a loved one?

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Universities which plan to hold in-person classes are not considering the safety of nearby communities. University campuses are not isolated from their surrounding towns and cities. Students shop in local stores, dine in local restaurants, drink in local bars and walk on local streets, often unmasked. By holding classes on campus and encouraging students to resume campus life, these universities are bringing thousands or tens of thousands of potentially infected people into their local communities, communities which include elderly and vulnerable populations. Their youth may protect the students from death, but it will not protect everyone they come in contact with.

Many Mid-Atlantic universities plan to teach fall semester almost fully online. As cases of coronavirus have continued to climb in the U.S. and in Philadelphia, the city’s government has warned that there is a high risk of community transmission. In response, the University of Pennsylvania announced that almost all undergraduate courses will be online with only limited in-person offerings. Provost Wendell Pritchett and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli stressed, “Our decision was guided by the most current medical information and governmental directives … our plans could change depending on the progression of the pandemic. It is now evident that rather than plateauing during the summer, as many health experts expected, COVID-19 has instead gained momentum.”

The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School announced on July 31 that it had changed its mind about a hybrid fall semester of in-person and online classes. Instead, Dean Erika James announced that all of Wharton’s fall classes will be virtual.

According to Georgetown President John DeGioia, as cases of the virus have accelerated and travel restrictions expanded, the school’s previous plans became inoperable. “Over these past few weeks, we have been carefully monitoring the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on our Fall plans,” DeGioia writes. “I write to share with you the difficult decision that, based on current pandemic and public health conditions, we will be amending our plans for the Fall. Courses for all undergraduate and graduate students will begin in virtual mode.” Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business has also decided to start its MBA program fully online.

Universities in Maryland and Virginia should also take this narrowing opportunity to move classes fully online, except, perhaps, for those that require laboratory facilities. If a university still has a reason to continue hybrid classes, it should provide its students the option to complete their classes fully online without going to the physical classroom.

Kalyan Singhal (ksinghal@ubalt.edu) is the McCurdy Professor of Operations Management at the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore.

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