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Madison Sargeant is a senior studying international relations and statistical methods at Boston University.
The recent uptick in coronavirus cases across the U.S. and the reclosing of states across the nation should be cause for concern for all of us — not just those directly affected.
Massachusetts is one of only four states currently on track to contain the coronavirus after nearly five months of severely restricted mobility and extensive testing and contact tracing.
The return of more than 300,000 college students to Boston from regions all around the globe, however, will threaten the progress this state has made.
Universities across the area have laid out plans for the upcoming academic year. In addition to Boston University, many other schools have adopted hybrid approaches, offering both in-person and remote classes. The University of Massachusetts Boston and Harvard University will both remain fully online through the end of the year.
The lack of consensus among these Universities and their programs, many only a mile or two apart, is worrisome.
Welcoming students back to Boston poses a severe threat to both the universities’ populations and the city’s population at large.
While universities have extended the move-in periods for those who do plan on returning in the fall, the logistics of moving in thousands of students over two weeks while maintaining public health and university protocols seem near impossible.
At this time, a mask is only required by the state when indoors, on university campuses and when six feet of distance from others is not possible. Asymptomatic people coming from highly infected states may not feel the need to wear a mask, which will put public health at risk and plant the seeds for another outbreak in Boston.
Universities such as BU have outlined safeguards to minimize the risk of transmission within the university population: no visitors in dorms, requiring masks on campus, strict enforcement of social distancing and regular testing, among other measures.
This approach assumes the University operates within a bubble, and fails to consider the rest of the city’s population.
The University cannot control student activities off-campus — for BU students, shops on Newbury Street and restaurants in Coolidge Corner await. Harvard and MIT students would be reluctant not to visit the plethora of eateries they used to frequent in Harvard Square.
Many students take the B line to get to campus, work and events, and this line is known for being crowded during peak hours. Neither local governments nor the universities have adequately addressed the issue of commuting — a vital consideration when wanting to bring students back to the classroom.
The college experience relies on students enjoying time with their friends. University administrators cannot restrict students’ movements and personal decisions, particularly in the case of preventing them from attending group outings and parties throughout Boston’s neighborhoods.
Contact tracing and regular testing might not be enough to contain an outbreak, either. The social atmosphere of Boston’s colleges and universities will be a prime environment for virus transmission. The increased spread of the coronavirus will only threaten the progress Boston and the Commonwealth have made in controlling the spread of the disease.
I would like to return to campus in September and enjoy the world-class educational experience I receive as a BU student as much as anyone.
Remote learning poses a financial hardship on universities, as students may opt to un-enroll from virtual classes viewed as less valuable than residential learning. Virtual education is also more difficult for students who have fragile home lives or difficulties focusing. Overall, social isolation is painful for anyone, period.
But I would be remiss to encourage or accept a return to campus in the middle of a pandemic that has crippled this country and does not show any signs of letting up.
The burden placed on faculty and local residents is unnecessary: professors and graduate students at universities across not only Boston, but the country, are being forced back into the classroom unless they present a “valid” excuse, such as age, child care needs or medical issues.
Making the hard decisions now allows us to get through this crisis faster — something states that failed to encourage mask-wearing, social distancing and precautionary quarantining earlier on are now paying the price for.
In such times, we cannot consider only ourselves when planning for actions that will affect all.