As the United States begins to emerge from COVID-19 lockdown measures, one question is on the mind of millions of college students across the nation: Will I be able to go back to my college campus this fall?
Creighton University recently announced a modified schedule that would end in-person classes after Thanksgiving. The California State University system, which typically enrolls nearly 500,000 students across 23 campuses, is closing its campuses for in-person learning for the entire fall semester. Across the pond, Cambridge University will hold lectures exclusively online until at least next summer.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green announced April 24 that the university is planning to open for on-campus classes in the fall without any word of an altered schedule.
I previously wrote that greater social distancing restrictions were the best response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I fully support Chancellor Green’s decision, and I would encourage other colleges across the United States to do the same.
Online learning has been a hassle for many students, myself included, as access to the internet and the devices to use it can be spotty. In fact, more than 9 million children lack home internet access.
If UNL continues online classes in the fall, the university would struggle financially. They already anticipate a loss of $50 million for the spring semester alone. Lincoln’s economy would also continue to suffer, as off-campus housing complexes and downtown businesses would struggle without students there to spend money.
These metrics can and should be discussed further, but for this article, I am not interested in the calculus of weighing economic impact against human life. As many who argue for school closures might say, it is possible for a business to come back or for lost learning to be made up, but it is impossible to reverse the effect of a COVID-19 death.
However, the best way to avoid the needless death of UNL students is not to close down campus. In fact, canceling in-person classes may actually have the opposite effect.
Young people were already facing a mental health crisis before COVID-19, and the pandemic lockdowns have only made things worse. In a typical year, there are around 1,100 suicides among college students and 6% of undergraduates at four-year colleges have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. The social isolation of online classes may only worsen the trend.
A recent study found that social isolation, decreased access to community and religious support and barriers to mental health treatment, all exacerbated by COVID-19, could result in a sharp increase in suicide.
John Muir Medical Center in California has already reported more suicide deaths than COVID-19 deaths during the lockdown, and that’s among the entire population, not just college students. A doctor there said that the hospital has seen a year’s worth of suicide attempts in the last four weeks.
A twelvefold increase of suicide nationwide due to social distancing, similar to what was seen at the California hospital, could result in around 12,000 additional deaths of just college students without greater efforts to reverse the trend. There is still limited data on the rise of suicides amid COVID-19 so the spike may be less severe, but it should not be ignored.
Young people are not at zero risk from COVID-19, but it is clear that there is a far more limited risk to college students from this disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 people between the ages of 15-24 have died from COVID-19 in the United States, as of May 16. If this age group continues to die at this same rate for an entire year, the number would still be less than the 1,100 college suicides that occur in a normal year. Still, these COVID-19 deaths are a tragedy, and UNL must have a plan in place to protect all students and faculty.
It is reasonable to assume that the number of young people dying from the coronavirus may increase if colleges resume classes, but for many students, heading back to classes may not look all that different from their lockdown routines.
Even at the height of the pandemic in mid-April, a survey suggested the majority of young people ignored the shelter-in-place orders. In Nebraska, some people continued to pack beaches near Hickman and at Schramm State Park, violating state social-distancing measures.
Holding classes online may be isolating for some people, but for others, it could be an excuse to party even more. It is much better for students to be learning in a controlled environment — one that could include masks — than to be left without structure for another semester or more.
It is difficult to say what effect bringing students back to campus will have on the number of coronavirus cases since no major colleges continued with in-person classes this spring. However, the results of New York’s antibody testing may provide some answers.
The testing found that New York frontline workers such as healthcare workers, police officers and transit workers had a lower rate of antibodies compared to the general population of New Yorkers. In other words, those who could not stay at home during the height of New York’s surge were less likely to have been infected with the virus.
Of course, many of these workers had to partake in strict sanitation measures as part of their job, and students returning to college should be required to do the same.
There is still a concern about older faculty and staff at the university that needs to be taken seriously. College students do not live in an invincible bubble, and it is reasonable to assume that they could pass the virus on to more vulnerable populations. However, if college students return to campus, they are less likely to be living in multi-generational households with vulnerable people. Transmission can still occur in a classroom setting, but households are the most common place for COVID-19 transmission.
The fall 2020 semester will have to look different for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Memorial Stadium may not roar with 90,000 fans. Students might not pack into crowded lecture halls. Masks could be required in classrooms.
However, these changes are a small price to pay for the value of an on-campus education and college experience, not to mention the mental health benefits.
I appreciate the chancellor’s decision and I look forward to returning to Lincoln this fall.
Brian Beach is a sophomore journalism major. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.