COVID Diary #11: Back on campus, and feeling pretty good about it

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at GBH News.

It feels more normal than I had expected.

I’m writing this on Tuesday of Week Two at Northeastern University. I’ve taught five classes — two via Zoom, three in person. I’ve taken three COVID tests. I’ve been rear-ended on the Zakim, taken the commuter rail, gotten on the Orange Line and walked the three miles from North Station to campus. I’ve ordered coffee, including my first Starbucks since last March, which I’m drinking right now.

And yes, I’ll admit, it’s good to be back.

Was I skeptical? Of course. Across the country, many employees are being told to work from home until next January at the earliest, even though working in a socially distanced office seems pretty low-risk. By contrast, college faculty are exposing themselves to young adults who, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, are going to spend some of their time partying, drinking, having sex and spreading whatever viruses they may be carrying, including COVID. Northeastern has already kicked out 11 freshmen, and Boston College is in the midst of what may be the early stages of a surge.

So far, though, I’m impressed with what I’ve seen. Mask-wearing is universal. Most people are conscious of not getting too close to anyone else. And though I’m teaching one of my classes in person, precautions are being taken. In a room in which as many as 19 students are sometimes assigned, I have a class of nine, and only seven of them can attend on any given day. We have a cart loaded with audio-visual equipment so that those attending remotely can see and hear us, and vice-versa. I’m impressed with the quality and how easy it is to use, although I needed some help from one of our brilliant students to get it up and running.

COVID has accelerated an upheaval in higher education that was already under way. Costs are out of control. Too often, young people and their families are left with unaffordable debt once they’ve picked up their degrees and launched their careers. Increasingly, we are being told that students would be better served by online education at a fraction of the cost.

Thus the return to campus this fall, at Northeastern and across the country, is driven by economics. We’re determined to show that there is value to the full in-person, on-campus college experience. As Harvard and MIT chaplain Greg M. Epstein wrote in The Boston Globe this past Sunday, “educational institutions and those who care about them risk everything if we forget that non-academic student activities help students become fully human.”

Less altruistically, colleges and universities need the money if they are going to continue with the faculty and infrastructure they have now. I’m not opposed to that. After all, one of the many things Northeastern does with the money it receives from students is pay my salary. I could have chosen to teach from home. At 64, I’m in the vulnerable age group. But I wanted to give the students who are enrolled in my in-person class as normal an experience as possible.

But only if it’s safe. At least at the moment, it’s looking good. The university is testing everyone — faculty, staff and students — several times a week. The most recent seven-day average of positive test results is just 0.05%, well below the state’s own admirably low rate of 0.8%. (Apples-and-oranges alert: Yes, I realize that not everyone in the state is being tested, and that a disproportionate number of those seeking tests have symptoms. Still, there’s no question that Northeastern is doing well so far.)

Still, the picture nationwide is unsettling. The New York Times is tracking COVID at campuses across the country, and the picture at some institutions is disturbing indeed. USA Today reports that “of the 25 hottest outbreaks in the U.S., communities heavy with college students represent 19 of them.” The University of North Carolina and Notre Dame are among the schools that shut down almost as soon as they reopened. Maybe things will be different in the Boston area given that COVID is more or less under control in the city and the state. We’ll find out soon enough.

As I walk around the campus, I see students everywhere — not as many as usual, and all of them masked. It’s not ideal. But for young adults learning how to make their way in the world, it’s got to be better than holing up in their parents’ basement for months at a time.

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