Image: Ian Henshaw
OPINION: Mercer is making a big mistake re-opening in the fall
July 21, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.