Image: Ian Henshaw

OPINION: Mercer is making a big mistake re-opening in the fall

July 22, 2020

This is an opinion article. Any views expressed belong solely to the author and are not representative of The Cluster.

What happens when a university opens in a pandemic? Apparently, Mercer University plans to find out.

In-person classes at Mercer University during the spring semester ended March 13. Georgia had 10 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 that day, contributing to at least 267 new confirmed cases nationwide. The pandemic has only gotten worse since classes were let out. On July 15, Georgia had 3,568 new confirmed cases, while the United States overall had 67,404

Nevertheless, the school has decided to bring students back for entirely in-person instruction in the fall. Numbers suggest that this is a fool’s errand.

It is not a question of if a mass outbreak will happen on campus, but when. ”

According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 is often more severe in people who are older than 60 years or who have pre-existing health conditions. However, that doesn’t mean that college undergraduates are in the clear. Research shows that as many as one in three young adults in the U.S. are vulnerable to having a severe case of COVID-19. Hospitalizations for people 18-49 years of age increased by 14% between March and June, according to the covid-net database of hospitalizations in 14 states that represent 10% of the U.S. population. 

There is also new evidence that there may be long-term health effects for anyone that contracts the virus, even if they originally only had mild symptoms. These long-term effects have included loss in lung function as well as neurological symptoms including headaches, strokes, seizures and general confusion. 

Asymptomatic transmission is recognized as a contributing factor to the quickly rising number of cases across the country. The CDC estimates that 40% of those infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, and the chance of transmission from people with no symptoms is 75%.

Even with this data in mind and Georgia being declared a “red zone,” Mercer plans to host in-person classes in the fall beginning on Aug. 18 and bring students back to on-campus housing

Although the administration has released COVID-19 safety plans to mitigate the spread, these initiatives will not be enough to protect students, faculty and the Macon community. Unless Mercer intends on feeding the public health crisis further, it needs an online option for fall classes on all campuses.

Mercer testing policies for move-in

Mercer will spread out move-in days over a span of four days. As part of the move-in procedure, Mercer has also required all undergraduate students returning to campus to be tested for COVID-19. They have presented two options for students to be tested: they can either be tested locally up to 10 days before they arrive on campus, or elect to be tested through Mercer Medicine in an appointment 30 minutes prior to their scheduled move-in time. 

Even with this data in mind and Georgia being declared a “red zone,” Mercer plans to host in-person classes in the fall beginning on Aug. 18 and bring students back to on-campus housing. ”

There are many unknown variables that are not addressed by this plan. COVID-19 tests are a snapshot of the current time. If a student was to get tested 10 days prior to their move-in date, there is no way to know if they contracted the virus in the days between being tested and arriving on campus. Since they were already cleared by Mercer Medicine because of the first test, the student could conceivably live in a communal dorm and walk around campus while asymptomatic, exposing students and faculty.

On the other hand, students that elect to be tested by Mercer Medicine on the day of their move-in will not get their results back for at least 24 hours. An asymptomatic student whose test comes back positive would already have moved into campus and interacted with fellow students living in their dormitory, exposing them to the virus.

If a single test were to come back positive the day after a student has moved in, any student or family member of a student moving in, Mercer staff or student volunteers would have been exposed to the COVID-19 positive individual. The amount of contact tracing involved in determining how many people a student encounters on move-in day would be close to impossible. The testing is also only being administered to students and not to family members of students helping them move in, introducing another unknown element of unnecessary COVID-19 exposure to the Mercer community.

What happens when someone shows up on move-in day as COVID-19 positive? Mercer University stated in an email to undergraduates that they have “designated isolation areas on campus” for these students, but what about every person that was exposed in the 24 hours it would take to process the test? Will they be tested again? Will they have to be isolated as well?

Hosting in-person classes

Say that move-in goes as planned and in-person classes and labs are in session as the school intends. The administration has not been forthright about addressing class sizes, classroom configurations for social distancing and cleaning measures for classrooms. 

Having in-person classes in the fall will be far from the general state of normalcy some may expect to have with an in-person experience.”

Although Mercer released a detailed Face Cover Policy on July 16 requiring masks inside most Mercer facilities, a mask mandate is not enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While masks have been shown to be effective at preventing transmission, research has shown that airflow within an enclosed space can lead to the transmission of the virus through the movement of aerosols or droplets when people stay in the same enclosed space for an extended amount of time. Mercer’s standard class time of 50 or 75 minutes exceeds the time limit.

Mercer has repeated in communications that virtual formats cannot fully capture activities and events that contribute to “The Mercer Experience.” This includes but is not limited to research and design projects, clinical work and celebrating student achievement in various venues. The school argues that “virtual formats cannot fully capture the enormous value of face-to-face instruction and the camaraderie of studying and learning in the company of one’s mentors and peers.” The value of face-to-face instruction and camaraderie of studying with peers is greatly reduced when standard social distancing measures are applied in classrooms.

Standard social distancing guidelines recommend people stay six feet apart to prevent virus transmission. If classrooms can be configured in this way, to further support social distancing, students will not be able to interact with their peers or professors as they normally would. If students are positioned closer together than the six feet because of space constraints (as other schools, including UNC Chapel Hill, have implied with the assumption that they will always face forward) it is unrealistic to expect this type of behavior from a class of college students. 

Having in-person classes in the fall will be far from the general state of normalcy some may expect to have with an in-person experience.

Other student activities

Preliminary evidence points to a high likelihood of an outbreak as college athletic programs across the nation have confirmed positive cases amongst members of their athletic programs including student-athletes, staff and coaches within weeks of returning to campus. Off-campus Fraternity and Sorority Programs have also shown alarming signs for the possibility of mass transmission.

It is not a question of if a mass outbreak will happen on campus, but when. 

Even the administration at Mercer has recognized the inevitability of an outbreak with their preparations for the year. A top official in communication with Todd Patton, a concerned Mercer parent, said they are “confident we are doing everything possible to promote safe practices on our campuses and effectively deal with cases as they occur.” 

University officials are acknowledging that their plans will result in students who fall ill to COVID-19.

Common surface contamination

COVID-19 has been shown to live on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for two to three days

A common surface all across the school used for security purposes are Bear Card scanners to get into buildings. Depending on the quality of the scanner, students physically have to touch their plastic Bear Card to the plastic enclosed scanner. In terms of dormitories, this is a common surface that every single student in the dorm has to touch prior to entry. With all of these surfaces that are so frequently used, how does the school plan on sanitizing every surface after every use? 

Mercer’s “Bears Care” initiative

In addition to having on-campus testing available through Mercer Medicine, Mercer has centered its coronavirus plan around its “Bears Care” initiative. According to Mercer’s website, the school will be providing every student, faculty and staff member with a “Bears Care Kit.” This kit includes a cloth mask, two ounces of hand sanitizer, a digital thermometer, a Bears Care lapel pin, a sticker with Student Health Center information, an information card on mask usage and hygiene tips and a “Bears Care” pledge card to promote personal responsibility. 

A mask, two fluid ounces of hand sanitizer, a thermometer and a pledge card: that is how the school plans to fight a pandemic. ”

A mask, two fluid ounces of hand sanitizer, a thermometer and a pledge card: that is how the school plans to fight a pandemic. 

While the school may be operating in an ideal world where students behave as they would pledge, patterns tell of a very different world that exists. In a survey last month from the Democracy Fund and UCLA Nationscape, 45% of people ages 18-39 said they had socialized without social distancing.


Effects on the Macon community

We as Mercerians have a responsibility to protect the Mercer family and the Macon community. Not only do students, faculty, and staff risk their own lives meeting in-person, but it risks those external to Mercer as well. Georgia has recently been identified as a “red zone” for coronavirus cases by an unpublished document written for the White House by the Department of Public Integrity, indicating that the state needs to revert back to more strict protective measures. These measures include to “close bars, require strict social distancing within restaurants, close gyms, and limit gatherings to 10 or fewer people.” 

The school runs the risk of endangering the entire Macon community and surrounding areas by bringing in a population influx of over 4,700 undergraduate students from across Georgia and across the country into a single 150- acre campus. Even if a student does not become severely ill from contracting COVID-19, they very well could pass it on to someone that does have a severe case. Students should not have to choose between pursuing their degree and the life of another person and the public well-being.

The alternative: An online fall semester

As of mid-July, Mercer has not given any online alternative for students who are at risk or students who are genuinely concerned about being exposed or carrying the virus to others. 

To the administration that decided to open this fall: people in the Mercer family and Macon community are going to die because of this decision. Are you willing to have this on your conscience for the sake of the Mercer experience? Are you changing the world the way you wanted? Is this what “Being the Bear” means? ”

In the same communication to Mercer parent Todd Patton, a Mercer top official stated, “we will not be providing an option for students to complete their coursework online, unless they are enrolled in programs that were designed to be delivered online.” 

While the in-person classes students are enrolled in were not originally designed to be online, this does not mean that they could not be adapted now. The university had a three-month summer break to be redeveloping coursework for online means.

The university has however implied that some form of distance learning will be available to undergraduate students who test positive for COVID-19. In an email sent to students on July 17, Mercer President Bill Underwood said, “please note that in the case when students do test positive when they move in, we have designated isolation areas on campus and have already made accommodations to ensure continuity of academic instruction.” 

Mercer also suggested that accommodations will be available to those with documented health issues, saying in a comment on a Mercer University Instagram post, “We understand a lot of you are concerned about those with underlying conditions. Students with documented health issues may request accommodations through our Access and Accommodations Office.”

However, it’s unclear what the accommodations are and how they will ensure continuity of academic instruction. If this is some type of video streaming system for those in isolation for testing positive for COVID-19, why is that same system not being made available for students who do not want to risk their and other people’s lives by coming back to campus? Why would students be required to come back to campus at all if this accommodation has already been made?

In the case the students do come back to campus and there is a mass outbreak, students will once again be sent home in the middle of the semester. This would result in a near repeat of the spring semester, where faculty had to scramble to adapt their courses for online learning using Canvas and Zoom. Instead of investing in in-person classes that would endanger attendees, where there is only so much that can be done, Mercer could be investing in new online methods and training professors in advance on how to use them to improve the value of an education students would receive online. The social interaction would not be the same as it is in-person. However, this would be a necessary sacrifice for all parties to keep the Mercer family and Macon community safe during the pandemic.

To the administration that decided to open this fall: people in the Mercer family and Macon community are going to die because of this decision. Are you willing to have this on your conscience for the sake of the Mercer experience? Are you changing the world the way you wanted? Is this what “Being the Bear” means? 

This is a call to action to rethink your strategies.


11 Responses to “OPINION: Mercer is making a big mistake re-opening in the fall”

  1. Leroy Punzi on July 22nd, 2020 10:07 am

    Gap semester: Anyone concerned is FREE to stay home; ultimately the decision is YOURS!

  2. Hannah Fountain on July 22nd, 2020 12:35 pm

    People should not have to make a decision between continuing their education at a risk to their health, or taking a gap semester and potentially messing up their mental health and their life plan just because Mercer can’t find a way to prepare and be accountable.

  3. Savannah Curro on July 22nd, 2020 12:57 pm

    This decision significantly disadvantages low income students who may not have the means to easily transfer to a university that will provide them with online options and thus, a safer college experience. Students who feel threatened by this decision and have the means to transfer, will do so while their peers with less may not have the same luxury, forcing some students to have to consider dropping out of college all together. If Mercer values the education it offers, it would ensure that all students have the ability to safely receive an education.

  4. Sammy Floyd on July 23rd, 2020 12:07 am

    Very good points brought up. How about testing faculty and staff ? How about university visitors ? Many of these persons work and/or visit unknown areas that are possibly “Hot Zones” and bring this back with them. How often do ALL university personnel get tested to ensure the safety of the University ?

  5. Emily Bartlett on July 23rd, 2020 12:38 am

    This article is a really great resource for students. It does a really good job of articulating fears that I know a lot of students are experiencing.

  6. Marc L on July 23rd, 2020 10:06 am

    This is a very well-written article. I would certainly not feel comfortable in a classroom this fall. That said, there are a lot of facts that I think you have failed to consider, or things that have been exaggerated a bit.
    – To become infected, there is a certain amount of viral particles you need to inhale — and it’s not a small number. Simply walking past an infected person isn’t enough to get you sick. You need close contact for an extended period of time.
    – As you mentioned, airborne transmission has been shown to occur when people share the same space for an extended period of time. But that was also without people wearing masks, and before people were extra-vigilant about not going out in public if they were symptomatic. (I believe in both cases I read about, the spreader was symptomatic at the time.)
    – The amount of virus a person “sheds” increases over the first few days. So while it is possible to transmit the virus before showing symptoms, it is highly unlikely. Your statement that “the chance of transmission from people with no symptoms is 75%” is very misleading. The CDC estimate is that asymptomatic transmission is 25% less likely than transmission from a symptomatic person. It doesn’t mean you have a 75% chance of catching it.
    – While it’s true that the virus can be detected on surfaces for two to three days, that doesn’t mean it is actually transmissible for that period of time, or even that there was ever enough virulent particles on that surface to make someone sick. And each additional level of contact reduces that amount further. For example, if I sneeze on my hand, then touch my Bear Card, some viral particles will likely be on the card. If I touch that card to a card reader, a tiny portion may be transferred to the reader. A tiny portion of that might be transferred to the next person’s card. A tiny portion of that may be transferred to that person’s hand, and a tiny portion of that may be transferred to their eyes, nose, or mouth. Even if the initial sneeze transferred enough virulent material to infect someone, and even if HALF of that amount transferred with each touch (highly unlikely), the path of hand to card to reader to card to hand to face would result in 1/32 of the original viral particles.

    I’m not saying that in-person classes are the best solution, only that it may not be as dangerous as you suggest. If Mercer doesn’t have the capability to transition to 100% online classes, then it would be unfair to students to not give them the option to attend in-person classes if they want. Students always have the option to take a gap semester and/or earn credits from an online university in the fall.

  7. RM on July 23rd, 2020 11:41 am

    On the other hand…respectfully,
    With the current testing technology available, people can test positive without being infectious because it PCR corona test testing picks up tiny shattered residuals even one has recovered. Read more about it: link.medium.com
    “Coronavirus: Why everyone was wrong” -Back To Reason, by Beda M Stadler (Translation)
    So do you put the non-infectious healthy but tested positive to Covid with the infectious/symptomatic ones who tested positive in quarantine together? There is not a testing available accurate enough to test for immunity, but immunity is more prevalent than promoted. Read more about it from the study by John P A Ioannidis of Stanford University and Einstein Foundation in Berlin showing that immunity against Sars-Cov2 measured in the form of antibodies and higher than previously thought.
    For the winter, the concern is more with flu & cold season, not COVID. You have to look at the data community by community. Why are others more immuned than others to sickness? Nutritional deficit ? Poor diet? Whether stroke, pneumonia, or heart issues what are the risk factors? Who? Why? Treat the illness for what they are(etiology) and not get blind-sided with COVID. Take your multi-vitamins!
    Those who advocate for testing Realty need to know what the testing means with the current testing technology available and maybe more of the obviousl and common sense…who are the ill, the ones immuned (the ones who are well), and who really are at risk?

  8. Carol Morgan on July 23rd, 2020 8:27 pm

    What happens when a student dies from it? Is Mercer prepared for the lawsuit that follows?

    The students will be home quickly once testing on campus starts. A large number of the students will be positive. My understanding is that Mercer has accommodations to quarantine 4 students.

    And take into account that the Macon hospital is overflowing with coronavirus patients. Patients are being sent to Cartersville Medical for treatment. .

  9. Thomas on July 30th, 2020 9:30 pm

    It is not realistic that the health of a student is the university’s responsibility when proper guidelines are set in place and the student does not follow said guidelines, resulting illness. With the plan Mercer has presented, it will limit the spread of the disease if it shows its pesky head at all. Wear a mask, social distance, and you have nothing at all to worry about. At the end of the day though, like I said, a student’s negligence is not the university’s responsibility if proper action was taken by the university. If you are still so worried, take a gap semester or year if necessary.

  10. Joan Simmons on August 2nd, 2020 9:14 am

    The fact that Mercer is not pursuing on-line options for their students is short-sighted from a business as well as a safety perspective. The COVID situation in GA is still developing. Mercer’s reluctance to deal with the scientific reality (at the expense of teachers and students) places the University in the vulnerable position of becoming an national example of system failure…. a legacy that no Mercer supporter would like.
    On a personal basis I am concerned that a family member is not being offered the opportunity to pursue a Mercer education within an environment that has more options to be safer for herself and those she comes in contact with at home.

  11. Brad on August 2nd, 2020 2:02 pm

    Thomas, how do you suppose students should social distance when in a class room setting? What about a lab setting where equipment is shared and lab partners are in close contact? What should students do if they unknowingly contract COVID and are asymptomatic? What happens when other students are exposed to an infected student in a lecture setting, where the time exposed will exceed the 15 minute exposure limit recommended by the CDC? What about air vents, can they spread the virus on a massive scale? What about college athletics? There are too many aspects of this virus that are unknown and it is quite ignorant to make a statement saying that ‘social distancing’ and ‘wearing a mask’ will solve everything. Those are guidelines meant to assist in solving the problem, not to act as the ultimate solution.

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