The Jayhawker Liberation Front is in the news. Among other things, these ambitious KU students demand closing campuses to all in-person learning until COVID is contained, along with an end to both capitalism and white supremacy. Those last two demands are beyond the scope of this column, but what about the first one?
I am opposed. I bring a different perspective. I teach at Emporia State, a smaller, more rural campus with a lower percentage of students in fraternities and sororities. A recent Axios report shows that smaller, more rural campuses like ESU are doing better at containing COVID than larger schools and urban campuses. In addition, our affordable tuition means that the school is less hard-hit in the pocketbook.
ESU’s official enrollment numbers were just released, showing little change from the same time last year, pre-COVID. My position undoubtedly biases my perspective, but when possible, I support keeping campuses open to on-campus learning while carefully, thoroughly monitoring the spread of COVID and vigorously encouraging responsible behavior.
A recent EDUCAUSE survey showed that 70% of students prefer their courses on campus. This trend is just as pronounced among the young "digital natives" as among the older, nontraditional students. In addition, struggling students have the most to lose from remote learning.
The threat of COVID is very real, but from K-12 to the university, many at-risk students are not so much learning remotely as losing a year of school. Keeping the campus open is their best shot at keeping up.
In addition, some activities are impossible to do remotely. For example, a great deal of scientific research happens at universities. Ensuring that professors and students have access to our extensive campus laboratories not only advances the progress of science generally, it specifically promises breakthroughs in the treatment of infectious diseases.
In fact, one of today’s most-promising potential COVID vaccines is being developed from a partnership between Aztra-Zeneca and Oxford University scientists.
These researchers and their students need access to their facilities to continue their research. Kansas scientists need this as well. For example, Dr. Erika Martin here at ESU is doing collaborative research with students on the impact of microplastics on fish populations here in Kansas.
This research requires both in-person field work and access to the lab. This research is critical to understanding the health of our fish populations and our waterways, as well as training our future aquatic biologists.
The primary reason university re-openings spread COVID is student behavior after hours. The universities need to be aggressive about countering this. This means frequent and repeated testing, immediately quarantining on- or off-campus houses where anyone has tested positive and disclosing all COVID-related information to the public and local health authorities.
Provisions must also stay in place for students who cannot or choose not to come to class for safety reasons. Social distancing is in place, while mask-wearing is required and ubiquitous, as it should be.
Yet closing the campus completely means that at-risk students fall further behind, financially struggling students rely on phones for activities that require a computer, and laboratory research stops.
When possible, campuses should remain at least partially open, but with extensive testing and safety precautions in place and responsible behavior vigorously enforced.
Michael Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.