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By Benjamin Fields, a Ph.D. student in sociology and demography at the University of California, Berkeley
Universities are the cornerstone of economic development as they have intensified knowledge to increase scientific production and train the people operating the governance front. The American higher education institutions gather the most talented minds from across the country — and the world, placing them in social-distance-defying classrooms to learn and produce knowledge. Unfortunately, this closeness is why courses should be online only for an extended period–until 2021.
With universities operating at costs that are arguably responsible for one of the most contentious political issues of our time, the staggering $1.7 trillion in student debt, they want to re-open to maintain their financial viability. Along with their desire to protect their endowments and other economic interests, their ordained essentiality status in the contemporary job market makes them a heavily desired option. That is why there are just under 20,000,000 undergraduate students alone in the United States each year.
Within this context, coronavirus will employ universities and colleges to become its best friend. It is the most convenient migration hub full of individuals that can carry the virus with no symptoms to all four corners of the country.
To anticipate the naysayers, I acknowledge that I cannot technically argue that the virus will be a significant issue following this summer. Based on intuition, re-emerging cases of coronavirus in China (because of migration, which boosts the arguments made in this article), and the fact that we will not have a vaccine or treatment within the immediate future, American colleges and universities will remain susceptible to the risk of COVID-19.
To begin, a sizable portion of our collegiate and university student bodies are international students at just over 1 million. Based on the sheer number alone, it is not hard to imagine that they represent a significant portion of the world’s 195+ countries and territories with more significant numbers from established powers like the UK, Italy, and China–which have all battled major coronavirus issues themselves. They will then be funneled through major hub airports (like Heathrow), conveniently able to infect international transportation routes and flights along the way.
As a disclaimer, I am not promoting xenophobia or even migration bans. I am a fan of global learning and have participated in these opportunities myself. Still, right now, it is not the most intelligent idea given the global pandemic unfolding amongst us.
Even within the United States, there is much shuffling of college students – 42% of them pursue undergraduate studies over a hundred miles away from home. Such shuffling poses an immense threat. The cities with large populations like Los Angeles and New York City–which suffered from large outbreaks–will be sending students to travel across the country, leaving coronavirus in the airports, buses, and other mediums of transportation along the way.
Within the university setting, if the majority of the students traveling did not have coronavirus as they came from a safe area, it will be easy for them to contract the virus. Sociologists at Cornell University researching collegiate networks have shown that each student can reach 98% of students within three steps.
This statistic is particularly alarming as one student at a university could have coronavirus and spread it like wildfire. Given the conditions: packed residence halls, frat houses packed full of students for parties, large lecture halls with 300+ students coughing their brains out, and university events/talks encouraging outside people to come and speak over students, the playing ground for COVID-19 is widespread.
To add insult to injury, this population travels a great deal during the year. Spring break, summer break, Thanksgiving Break, other seasonal breaks, study abroad and service-learning programs, athletic events, and conferences are almost endless. There are too many places that students are going that can cause virus outbreaks of considerable magnitude.
To give an example that is personal but not challenging the anonymity of the source, I know of an entire social network at a place of employment that was likely infected by one of these college students. For example, a professor at Cornell alerted me that a friend of his saw his entire job staff (as well as himself) become infected after his son arrived home from college. The student arrived home one day, and within the incubation period that we have come to understand, the father got sick. Following that, about the same period later, everyone at his workplace contracted the virus as well. I will not dismiss the possibility that the student was not the vector, but at minimum, it is a thought experiment that highlights the reality of this particular vulnerability.
Ultimately, opening up the country is inevitable, but should be done so efficiently and intelligently. Numerous industries must stay closed (like clubs and bars) that incite the type of social activity that the virus is needing to reproduce; the collegiate and university education system is one of them. The university environment and ancillary elements have too many available parts that would make the coronavirus personification say “JACKPOT, thanks best friend”!
Benjamin Fields is a Ph.D. student in sociology and demography at the University of California, Berkeley. Currently, his research focuses on health disparities and inequalities in African American and African populations as well as on social-psychological states of mind in education and health. In his free time, he runs mentoring programs for high school and college students who are trying to reach the next level of education. Post-PhD, he plans on becoming a tenured track faculty member and engaging in health and educational consulting as well as continuing his mentoring programs.