Reopening colleges and universities will be a delicate balancing act of risk and reward. Compared to virtual classes, in-person classes enhance learning through face-to-face interactions and access university resources like labs, computers and advisors, but they risk causing serious spikes in new coronavirus cases. With the start of the fall semester quickly approaching, the University System of Georgia will need to come to a clear answer on just how much risk it is willing to accept before it would move classes online again.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we all take risks in our everyday lives that endanger ourselves and others. When we go for a walk on the sidewalk with a friend, we risk getting hit by a bad driver or getting mugged.
We walk on the sidewalk knowing that the risk is very low, but that doesn’t mean we are willing to mosey through a busy intersection. We’re more careful there because the chance of being hit by a speeding car is too great.
In this regard, the coronavirus pandemic is no different. It’s easy enough to proclaim that even one person getting sick is too many, but in practice, that’s not really true. If the risk of a serious outbreak was low, we’d tolerate it. Put another way, if the coronavirus infected only 100 Americans a day and killed one a week, very few leaders would seriously consider shutting everything down.
Take South Korea, for example. The South Korean government was able to quickly control the virus, so the country hardly missed a beat. To date, South Korea has only had 13,244 coronavirus cases, according to John Hopkins University. For comparison, the state of Georgia, despite a much smaller population, reported 19,179 cases in the past week. Not shutting down will certainly lead to more cases, but to South Korea, a shut down was not worth it because the risk of a serious outbreak is very low.
That’s certainly not the case in the United States, where recent days have brought new records in single-day cases. The worsening situation has forced government leaders across the states to reexamine the risks they are willing to take, and in some cases, reverse their reopening plans.
USG, too, will have to grapple with these questions. To some extent, they already have. Originally, they planned to only encourage students, staff and faculty to wear masks. A surge in cases in the state and across the country, along with intense backlash from professors and students, forced USG to reverse course and mandate masks.
Georgia’s colleges will need to figure out how much risk they are willing to tolerate from the coronavirus too. Would they risk 1,000 students or staff members getting sick? Would 10,000 need to be infected?
Maybe USG does not care at all about cases and will only worry about deaths. Although younger students are at low risk of dying from the coronavirus, their older professors could develop serious complications. Would the death of one student or staff member be too many? Or would the university allow up to 50 deaths? Do those infections and deaths have to come from the USG community, or does USG also care about the parents, spouses and children of its students and staff?
USG may have already thought through all of these questions. I hope they have. If they have not, however, they better do so soon. The fall semester starts in August, and USG’s decisions will have serious ramifications for the communities of 26 colleges and the entire state of Georgia.