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In-person college instruction in Fall 2020 would be senseless

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Echoing Dan and Paul, I can’t see any serious case for a return to in-person post-secondary instruction for the fall, and I think the Post piece Dan linked to earlier today is dispositive. I’d like to highlight some of its points in more detail:

  • It’s true that college-age students are at relatively less risk, but COVID-19 still has alarmingly high death rates 18-22 year olds, with many minority populations at high risk. Moreover, college students interact with more vulnerable populations so the risks to their age group is far from the only consideration.
  • Treating COVID-19 as a “died/survived” dichotomy is incredibly misguided and pernicious. It’s a horrible disease that poses permanent health risks to many survivors, not just the flu with higher death rates. Focusing solely on death rates when making policy is not a good idea.
  • Indoor spaces with sustained exposure are the most dangerous environments, and most university activities take place in exactly these high-risk environments. Masking can substantially mitigate these risks, but between consistently unreliable information being given to the public and a lack of federal action to make subsidized or free surgical-grade masks available many students will wear masks improperly or use bandanas or woven cloth masks that don’t work as well. [Yes, any covering is markedly better than no mask, but when dealing with large groups significant numbers of people wearing masks that allow for substantial transmission is a major problem.]
  • Bansal, Carlson, and Kraemer also make a point that I haven’t seen made nearly enough: remote learning isn’t as good as normal in-person instruction, but that’s irrelevant. It seems very likely that remote learning for college students is as good or better than trying to teach in person with the changes COVID would require. Maybe it’s me, but 25 students terrified of contracting a deadly virus sitting an auditorium designed for 200 watching an instructor mumbling through a mask behind a wall of plexiglass strikes me as a decidedly suboptimal pedagogical environment. It’s far from obvious to me that remote learning wouldn’t be more effective than a COVID-adapted classroom, and certainly I can’t see any case that the difference would be sufficient to risk a substantial amount of severe illness and death.

Assumptions that in-person instruction could start again in the fall were fundamentally premised on daydream believing a level of virus suppression that is pretty clearly not going to happen. Secondary and primary education are a harder question because the limitations of remote learning and the burden placed on parents is so severe, leaving no choices that aren’t horrible. But the countervailing factors for higher ed are much less serious. I don’t see any serious case for in-person instruction in the vast majority of cases until the virus is suppressed (which in the US almost certainly means a vaccine or highly effective treatment.)

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