As this spring semester starts to wind down, Augustana University has started discussions on how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic in the fall. There are myriad approaches the university could take to control the spread of the virus, but many factors will impact how Augie implements protocol.
Some colleges, such as Duke University, Rutgers University and the University of Notre Dame, will require students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before returning to campus in the fall. It is legal for schools to require vaccines, although some may have to navigate federal and state laws to do so.
Other alternatives could be a more hybrid approach, such as requiring masks but minimizing distancing. The university could also consider changing how events are held on campus or the structure of online and hybrid classes.
Augustana could also completely remove all COVID-19 restrictions and protocols, although this plan seems highly unlikely, considering the pandemic is still ongoing and the United States is no longer expected to reach herd immunity this summer, according to The New York Times.
No matter Augustana’s decision for the fall, current vaccination and infection rates will be a factor in determining the plan. As of May 4, 59.92% of the Augie community, was in the vaccination process, and 46.62% were fully vaccinated, according to myAugie.
Below, Arden Koenecke argues for a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, and Slater Dixon argues for caution before changing protocol.
Augustana should try to return to normal this fall
After almost a year and a half of a world turned upside down, it’s hard to imagine what life might look like post-pandemic. However, with vaccines on the incline and cases on the decline, Augustana should start planning for a return to normal by the time classes resume in the fall.
As of May 4, according to MyAugie, almost 47% of the campus community was fully vaccinated, with over 59% in the vaccination process. Recipients achieve immune protections two weeks after their second vaccination, meaning those who have just gotten their first dose are at maximum six weeks away from protection. Those in the vaccination process will be in shape and ready to go by the time the fall rolls around, ready to learn and participate in campus activities like they could before Corona was nothing more than a beer.
Although these numbers could certainly be better, the administration also relies on people who are vaccinated to report to Augustana that they’ve done so. This means there could be a number of students or employees out there who haven’t reported yet, even though they are protected from COVID-19.
Additionally, it can be hard to find time in between classes, activities and study sessions to go get vaccinated. Vaccine clinics with open times are often not close to campus, with some students going as far as Canton, meaning that many students may simply choose to wait until summer comes.
The vaccine is important in ensuring a return to normal life, but it’s important to acknowledge that some students and faculty may still choose not to be vaccinated for a variety of reasons. Though they may not be as protected as others, having most of campus vaccinated starts a move toward herd immunity where those of us with the vaccine can protect others without it. This helps further justify a return to normal campus life.
Augustana’s hybrid and online learning have also been challenging for some students, further encouraging a return to normal classes. I respect individual professors’ decisions to teach online when their health is at risk due to the pandemic. It’s difficult, however, to fully learn material and engage in classes when there’s no face-to-face interactions with classmates and professors.
According to the Brookings Institute, online learning can reduce GPA, increase likelihood of dropping out and decrease overall academic performance. Online classes also depend on access to reliable technology, which can be hard for some students to find. Although it’s easy to justify why we’ve compromised full, robust learning for our health over the last several months, as we anticipate a return to normal in the rest of the world, classes at Augustana should go back to normal as well.
Last, and probably most underrated, is a return to campus activities. Although day-to-day life builds camaraderie, too, there is value in bigger traditions like the Viking Days parade, UBG’s Big Event or opening night of Welcome Week. Take it from a Viking Days co-chair: It’s incredibly difficult to replicate these environments amid a pandemic.
In addition, student groups have modified their activities to be pandemic-friendly, including Zoom meetings and hosting in bigger spaces. Although modifications have been necessary, to put it plainly, it really just isn’t the same. Augustana should also plan for a return to normal because it opens up the possibility to host the events that make Augustana feel like Augustana.
Augustana has been taking precautions and limiting interactions because it was not safe to do so. Now that we’re moving toward a vaccinated campus, it’s time to strategically remove precautions and get back to normal.
‘Let’s wait and see’ before changing restrictions
As students prepare to leave for the summer, many are excited by the prospect of returning to a campus without a trace of COVID-19 restrictions. These feelings are understandable — we’ve spent over a year wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings and attending meetings via Zoom. But defining “normal” is difficult.
Excluding the precautions in place that lack scientific backing, Augustana may need to make changes to campus life to address the lingering effects of the pandemic. Restrictions should only be rolled back if there is strong evidence that doing so would come at minimal cost to public health. In the long term, measures like contact tracing and regular vaccinations should be accepted as a regular part of a post-COVID world.
There are some COVID-19 precautions that should not return to campus next year simply because they lack scientific backing. For example, the use of Vindicator disinfectant on desks after each class is unnecessary, not necessarily because the pandemic is over, but because such practices never accomplished much in the first place.
And as recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests, restrictions on outdoor gatherings should be scaled back to reflect the minimal risk associated with catching the virus outside, especially if one is vaccinated.
Other questions, however, are more difficult to answer. Masking and limiting large gatherings are the most effective precautions for controlling the virus, but they also have the greatest impact on our perception of what is normal. Once these restrictions are eased, our campus will lose its primary tools for preventing the spread of the disease. The decisions surrounding what to do should be made with great caution.
Of course, such decisions will also be highly contingent on vaccination rates. The vaccine is unequivocally effective at protecting people from getting sick from the virus, yet disingenuous fallacies surrounding the vaccine have led to substantial rates of vaccine hesitancy across the nation. Hesitancy, combined with the challenge of new variants, has led some sources to argue that the U.S. is unlikely to ever reach standard epidemiological herd immunity.
Recent reporting from The New York Times suggests that differences in vaccination rates within different states and different countries will mean that the virus is never completely eradicated. What this means for Augustana is uncertain.
Anecdotally, there has already been a general relaxation in COVID vigilance on campus, and it is unlikely that substantial precautions will remain in place next fall considering the number of students who have been vaccinated and general fatigue surrounding social distancing measures. But it would be beneficial to have the understanding that we will likely never erase the coronavirus from existence, especially not in the short-term.
Although research is inconclusive, there is evidence that the coronavirus will become a flu-like illness that requires yearly immunizations and contact tracing in order to prevent deaths. Currently, minimizing deaths due to COVID-19 still requires social distancing and masking. It is too early to tell whether that will change in three months.
Variants, vaccine hesitancy and an overenthusiastic return to pre-COVID activities still have the potential to prolong the pandemic, even after the summer ends. In such a case, the administration should maintain social distancing and masking rules. It is crucial that a large majority of students get vaccinated in order to avoid this situation.
By doing so, we can finally hope for a year that is not devoid of all traces of the virus, but is not significantly hindered by it.