As University of Redlands students settle into online classes for the fall 2020 semester, many are already setting their sights on returning to campus this spring.
“The hardest part about taking online classes this semester is not the courses themselves, but the fact that these courses have to be taken from my childhood bedroom,” says junior Kirsten Marsteller. “Living at home and not having access to the environment and resources available to me on campus has proven to be quite a challenge academically, mentally, and emotionally.”
As stated in an Aug. 5 Redlands Bulldog article, coronavirus information had drastically changed between the University’s initial commitment to opening and the weeks leading up to move-in day.
A graph provided by the New York Times indicates California’s peak occurred on Jul. 25 with 12,162 new cases on the day and a 9,576 seven-day average. However, there was a sharp uptick in the beginning of August that almost matched the peak, just two weeks before the University had been scheduled to open.
Fortunately, the rate of new cases has been steadily decreasing ever since. In fact, over the past week, cases decreased by 21 percent from the average two weeks earlier. The New York Times reported 5,407 new cases on Sept. 2.
Despite the importance of the state of California’s coronavirus trends, San Bernardino County’s numbers are much more indicative of the University of Redlands’ ability to reopen the school for the spring 2021 semester.
Fontana Herald News reported on Aug. 26 that San Bernardino County is edging closer to escaping Governor Newsom’s watchlist. Once off the watchlist, counties are permitted to begin reopening businesses and schools.
There are six criteria counties must meet in order to allow the reopening of schools and universities. Currently, San Bernardino County meets half.
San Bernardino has more than enough ICU beds and hospital ventilators available for use at any given time, and has not experienced an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations of 10 percent or more over the previous three days.
Meanwhile, the criteria San Bernardino has yet to meet involves testing and positivity rates. California counties must perform at least 150 tests per 100,000 residents per day over a seven-day average. For San Bernardino, that means averaging about 3,000 tests per day—a number the county is very close to achieving. San Bernardino must also have no more than 100 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days. Currently at 200, that number is improving.
Finally, the county must have no more than 25 new cases per 100,000 residents and, at most, an 8 percent test positivity rate. San Bernardino County has 12.2 cases per 100,000 residents. The current positivity rate in San Bernardino County is 10.6 percent and is steadily declining towards the 8 percent target.
If San Bernardino County remains on its current course, it should be removed from the Governor’s watchlist long before Jan. 17, when students would arrive for the second semester.
It is imperative that students return to some semblance of normalcy as soon as it is safe to do so. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, another pressing issue has presented itself to the college-age population as a result of isolation.
According to the CDC, suicide ideation is up among young people since last year, with a staggering one in four people aged 18 through 24 having seriously considered suicide in the 30 days preceding the June survey, as reported by CNN.
This mental health crisis is hitting minority communities the hardest. While 11 percent of all adults surveyed by the Center for Disease Control said they had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days, 19 percent of Hispanics and 15 percent of Blacks reported suicidal thoughts. Furthermore, the number of Americans reporting anxiety symptoms is three times as high as last year’s poll.
Returning to campus, even in a limited capacity, will relieve a significant mental burden placed on students during the pandemic. In his Apr. 23 letter to the University community, President Kuncl emphasized that “this crisis, particularly with its home-bound isolation, should trigger a profound realization of the importance of the social contact we now miss and the personalized interactions that are the essence of a Redlands education.” Indeed, it has.
“What I miss about campus is mainly the interactions of seeing everyone I know and all the friendly faces at the U of R,” says Cesar Velasco, class of 2023. Virtual learning has presented a number of academic challenges as well, another student confirms. “Personally, I’ve been having trouble keeping myself in school mode because I’m at home,” sophomore Avery Tax told me.
If students can return to a hybrid structure with some in-person instruction that observes social distancing guidelines and requires facemasks, the University will begin to restore its promise of a personalized education that has been tested during virtual learning.
In June, former College of Arts and Sciences Dean Kendrick Brown stressed that “providing courses using different instructional delivery should be responsive to [our] learning needs,” and that “enabling a range of instructional modalities will address important COVID-19-related health/safety considerations for [us] and our College faculty/staff.”
Although the University couldn’t employ those teaching modalities as intended in the fall, the improving situation in San Bernardino County indicates it may be possible come January.
But the University’s plans for reopening mean nothing if students don’t act responsibly upon returning to campus. Off-campus parties, large gatherings, or other practices strictly discouraged by the CDC could quickly derail or delay the campus reopening.
The University of Notre Dame recently announced it would begin phasing back in face-to-face instruction after a two-week delay, the Wall Street Journal reported. “The virus dealt us a blow and we stumbled, but we steadied ourselves and now we move on,” Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins said on Aug. 28.
Notre Dame recorded just 15 new cases the day before his announcement, a significant improvement from the 102 recorded on Aug. 17 and the more than 80 on each of the following two days. This progress allowed Notre Dame to resume in-person learning.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, however, wasn’t so lucky. The UNC Administration cancelled in-person classes just a week into the semester as coronavirus clusters broke out largely as a result of off-campus parties and other activities.
Notre Dame’s situation proves that reopening can be successful despite an early surge in positive cases; but North Carolina serves as a reminder that we, the students, must act responsibly to ensure reopening is possible and sustainable here in Redlands.
If the University is in serious financial danger, a safe and sustainable reopening may save its future. President Christina Paxson of Brown University warned that small private universities like the U of R may struggle to stay afloat without students on campus: “It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
The financial implications off-campus learning has for the University are a critical reason why Redlands should reopen campus in January, and why we must be conscientious and responsible upon our return.