The Decision to Stay with Remote Study and Work: A Deeper Dive

Posted on June 12, 2020

Our announcement this week that we will not bring students and employees back to campus in September has predictably disappointed a lot of people and I’ve received lots of messages from students and parents. A number of students have asked for a more detailed explanation, something I’m happy to do. While our communications outlined our reasoning, let me respond with more detail to some of the themes in the comments and questions we’ve been receiving: 

  1. Everyone knows that students are at a very low statistical risk of serious consequences from infection.

Absolutely right. But a campus is made up of students and many people who are at higher risk: faculty, dining hall workers, facilities staff, public safety, and other students with underlying conditions.  Also, commuters go back and forth to home, often to family members who are also at high risk. Because students are apt to be asymptomatic when infected, they can spread the infection without knowing it.  We need to think about the safety of all our at-risk community members. As one public health expert told me:

  • If your students get infected, many might not even know it.
  • If faculty and staff get sick, they will be knocked out for a while and as sick as they have ever been.
  • If any have underlying health conditions, they can easily end up on a ventilator, and some may die.
  • If commuters or others go home, older family members — parents and grandparents – will be at great risk.
  1. But the World Health Organization now doubts that infected people remain asymptomatic.  

That one statement was quickly walked back by the WHO and discounted by the world’s best infectious disease specialists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci. The general understanding remains: infected people, typically younger, can remain asymptomatic and inadvertently spread the infection. New concerns are also being raised about the long-term health consequences of being infected and recovering. As I’m sure you know, even young children (statistically, the lowest risk) can suffer severe consequences. The virus remains dangerous and virulent and it is most emphatically not a slightly worse version of the flu.  This analysis is pretty dense, but is one of the best I’ve read:  

  1. Other schools are figuring it out, why can’t we?

Most schools say they intend to figure it out. We have not seen a convincing plan for effectively re-opening that A) properly protects at-risk members of the community, and B) provides a real semblance of normal campus life (or anything close to it). Guidelines recommend only single rooms, preferably with their own bathroom. We cannot do that. Also, as we understand that 6-foot distancing is not enough given the aerosol nature of the virus, the density of classrooms makes anything like a normal face-to-face schedule almost impossible and would quadruple the number of sections needed (and the teaching loads of faculty). 

I think many students think we could come back to something approximating normal. Someone asked if they could at least live in the dorms, have a quasi-normal social life, and take classes online. Dorm life would be so restricted I fear it would feel more like prison. To make even a stab at opening up then means a campus life that is hardly recognizable. No gatherings, spectator-less sports events, no parties, everyone in masks, faculty perhaps behind Plexiglas, limited-access eating; and we do not have nearly enough classrooms to maintain adequate social distancing guidelines. The fitness center, Pub, and other campus locations would be closed.  

One of the universities with an aggressive stance on re-opening admitted that studies of airflow and infections means they might have to turn off their HVAC systems — an option in their temperate location, but not in New Hampshire in winter. This article captures well the challenge of bringing students back into dormitories:

The last paragraph resonates:

“But relying on structural, policy and behavioral interventions alone will not eliminate the personal risk to students and the collateral risk to the larger college community. In other words, administrators must decide whether the economic costs of delaying the return to campus outweigh the predictable cost of student death and disability.”

  1. We made the decision too early.

No credible scientist believes we will have a vaccine by the fall. No antivirals are yet ready (if we knew getting sick meant not dying, many of us would take the chance). No testing of the kind we need to even consider re-opening is yet available to us (fast — like 10 minutes — plus accurate and affordable). Deciding now gives us more time for everyone to plan and be ready for remote work and study. In addition, we were getting inquiries from parents and students about things like leasing apartments. If the miraculous happens, we can reconsider. But we need to plan for the likely.

  1. Why not take a stab at opening and then send people home if you have to?

First, dorms rival nursing homes and cruise ships for the ability to quickly spread infection. If we send people home across the region and country, we can easily contribute to the expected surge in infections. Important point here: There have been 10 pandemics in the last 250 years and every one of them had an initial surge, a period of decreased infections, and a much worse second surge. There is no reason to believe this pandemic will act differently. As Dr. Fauci said this week, we are still in the beginning of the pandemic and the US has the worst infection rates in the world. Hasty re-opening is likely to make matters worse. Our campus could crush the local health care system if we have a severe outbreak and even if we caught it early, closed down, and sent everyone home, we would contribute to the spread of the virus and put families at risk. Also, remember how difficult it was to do the clearing of campus this spring — we’d be in the same situation.

  1. Did we take student sentiment into consideration?

We recognized that a decision not to bring everyone back would make most students (and a lot of parents) unhappy, but we did not make this decision based on popular opinion, political sentiments, or economic pressures. We understand as well as anyone quarantine fatigue, the emotional and psychological toll, and the need for social contact that the pandemic exacerbates. The task force looked at public health guidance, the science, the logistics, and our local context and made its recommendation based on logic, not desire.  We share the desire.

  1. But I don’t like remote courses.  [Variations: I need more structure than remote courses provide.]

We understand that many of our students prefer in-person courses. But if campus is denied us, then remote learning is our only option. Having the summer allows us to be even better prepared for remote teaching and learning in the fall. Every student who has taken remote courses knows that what is true for a campus-based course is also true for a remote course: what you as a student put into the course directly correlates to what you get out of the course. We will provide robust supports and a wide range of resources for you to help ensure your success. 

  1. SNHU is using the pandemic to force a shift to only online learning.

We didn’t invest in campus improvements including building a new engineering building and replacing old dorms with stunning new residence halls in order to be rid of the campus. Moreover, not opening hits our budget very hard. We are currently working to reinvent our campus programs and lower tuition, and my hope is that rather than shrink the campus from 3,000 students we might double the number of students having the campus experience, even if online learning becomes part of the overall mix. There is no version of the future in which we do not have a robust campus learning environment.

  1. You lowered the tuition for the fall, but you took away scholarship money. Why?

Scholarship packages were built to help cover a $31,000 annual tuition. When we lower tuition, that same level of need is no longer there. The great majority of our students will pay less out of pocket than they would have if we had reconvened with our regular tuition rate and scholarships. We will work case by case with that small number of students adversely affected.

  1. I’m a returning student now paying the lower $10,000 annual tuition rate, but first-year students are having their $10,000 tuition covered with a scholarship. Isn’t that unfair?

We have heard this one a lot. Returning students get the established curriculum, work with campus faculty, have choices for classes, and are engaged in a program that they chose and are completing. In contrast, first -year students were expecting the same programs, but have been told that those will not be available to them after all. They missed their opportunity to go elsewhere in many instances and they do not yet know what their programs will look like, so they are taking a bet on us. We are also asking them to be actively engaged in shaping those future programs. Given all of that, the scholarships are only fair in our eyes.  

  1. Remaining remote has a disproportionate impact on our most disadvantaged students.

The pandemic has shined a harsh light on societal inequity, and higher education is no exception. The task force is well aware of what this decision means for those suffering food or housing insecurity or a lack of access to technology. They are working on ways to support students in that situation.   

I suspect that none of what I’ve outlined above makes students and parents any happier, but it might help with understanding. One of our core values is “Always do the right thing.”  That value drove the task force recommendation, my decision, and how we will support students going forward.

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