By: Paloma Rentería
I used to want to go back to campus. Now, I want what’s best for our campus.
President Turner has released a series of plans detailing a return to campus and in-person classes. The scenarios he and the COVID-19 Task Force present include students moving in as early as August 9 to live in dorms, attend classes, and eat in dining halls with the “expectation” of face coverings.
While I wish I could believe that everything in the fall will be as normal as administrators promise, I cannot ignore the fact that the exact opposite will be true. Everything we know has changed. Dallas County has become the epicenter of a novel and deadly virus. Every day, we see surges of positive COVID-19 cases by the hundreds. Hospitals are already nearing capacity, and Harris County — the only Texas county with more cases than us — is being forced to pick and choose which coronavirus patients will live or die .
More than 100,000 cases have been reported since June 18 in Texas alone. Every statistical trend shows that we can only expect things to get worse. Texas cases are steadily on the rise, according to NPR, showing us at a 77% increase in cases from two weeks ago with a daily average of 6,991 cases per day in that time. Dallas County is the second largest contributor to this number. How can we justify adding nearly 12,000 18 to 22-year-olds into the mix to further increase those numbers?
Reports show health officials are most concerned about the spread of this virus through asymptomatic young people. The numbers we see now are the number of cases that exist without Boulevards, fraternity parties, in-person classes, and SMU students congregating at local restaurants and bars. How much worse will this pandemic become if we open our doors to students from all across the country in one centralized space?
SMU has a huge presence in Dallas. We all love this city, and because we do, we must prioritize the health and safety of the people in this place we love so much. It is because I love SMU and the Dallas community that I urge President Turner to make the right decision and move to online instruction for the fall 2020 semester.
This is not my first choice, nor anyone else’s. But because of our state government’s failure to implement earlier, more aggressive safety protocols, this is the inevitable consequence we inherit.
The plans for an on-campus return are flimsy at best and practically impossible at worst. With no way to enforce the use of face masks or social distancing measures, it is hard not to picture a campus looking just like last semester. There are hardly any details offered on how to utilize community spaces like libraries and gyms. It is unclear whether students will have roommates or not. Anytime I press administration or faculty members on important questions — How do we social distance in community bathrooms? How do you eat in the dining hall with a face covering? How do you stop visitation or limit the number of people in public spaces? — I am met with a reluctant shoulder shrug and a response along the lines of, “We’ll figure it out and hope for the best!”
It is because I love SMU and the Dallas community that I urge President Turner to make the right decision and move to online instruction for the fall 2020 semester.
Even the details we do know about the current plans have gaping holes worth noting. For example, much of the extra sanitation responsibility falls on the shoulders of our janitors who are already overworked. Are they being compensated for the extra duties they would be taking on? When I left my dorm in the spring, janitors were in the bathrooms cleaning almost every hour. While their efforts are greatly appreciated, we need to show them we value them as well as saying it.
Another issue: If classes remain in person, even with staggered attendance days, what risks does this pose to faculty? Particularly to those who are older or who suffer from already-existing medical conditions? If a student falls ill, they can keep up and isolate themselves for two weeks or more. What about the professors?
Immunocompromised RA’s are also having to choose between their health and their job. If they, because of preexisting medical challenges, must take remote courses to stay safe, they must also resign from the position they worked so hard to earn.
While I have fought for other measures to keep students safe on campus, such as the removal of a graded attendance policy, it is now clear to me that more drastic measures must be taken. This is why I’m proposing this three-step plan:
1. Move all classes to online instruction, and do it now. If the in-person instruction model fails, we will all have to go back online anyway. But what is our indicator of failure? Do we have to wait for one of our students or professors to die? Do we have to wait until Dallas hospitals are over-capacity and turning people away? Do we have to wait until half of our campus tests positive for COVID-19? These are not risks our students should have to take. We have a responsibility as a university to protect the lives of our students, faculty, and staff above all else. Waiting for someone to inevitably die as a result of a careless reopen happening too soon is not only ridiculous but also inhumane. If we make the decision now, we can prevent sickness and death before anyone has to suffer. Making the decision now also helps incoming students manage their finances before they have to buy dorm items, flights, or moving services that they will not use.
2. Reduce tuition. Much of the conversation regarding an on-campus model has centered around the elusive “college experience” that we were promised: the boulevards, the brunches, the dorms and libraries and beautiful commutes to class. The people making this argument have a point. If SMU is going to be the most expensive school in the entire state of Texas, it must provide an excellent experience to justify the nearly $80,000 price tag. But to them I bring up one important piece of information to remember: we were never going to get that experience this fall anyway. If campus-wide student social events, study abroad programs, and several extracurricular activities are already cancelled or amended to its bare bones, we are already missing out on the lofty promises made by our school’s admissions brochure. If the on-campus experience means going to dorms and class and back again, we can do that from our own homes without putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.
Not only that, SMU has an endowment of a whopping $1.66 billion according to their 2019 records. This money is meant to be used for the betterment of this university and its students. The blessing of an endowment this large is that we can handle crises and emergencies that come our way. As much as we want to close our eyes and cover our ears and act like this is just another beautiful, normal semester on the Hilltop: it is not. To convince ourselves otherwise is not only foolish but also dangerous.
Many universities are waiting to go online until after the first day of school to prevent an enrollment drop and keep as much business as they can. To this I raise the question: aren’t human lives more important than money? A school as historic as SMU, and with as large of an endowment as it has, can afford one semester in its 109 year history with less revenue than they wanted. And they can do so without penalizing and cutting their financial aid to their most vulnerable students as other universities, like USC, have done.
SMU reducing tuition and moving classes online now would still keep more people enrolled, but I urge SMU not to be blinded by money when we are in a historic, unprecedented situation. Tuition reduction and online instruction is not something to take lightly, but neither is a deadly disease without a vaccine. Especially when we are in the middle of one of the nation’s hot spots and attempting to bring in students in the exact age range of the virus’ most contagious carriers. In March, we dropped everything and sent students home when the national case count reached about 100. What logical sense does it make to send us right back to campus, left to our own devices, when the number of cases in Dallas County alone is over 28,000 with more than 400 confirmed deaths?
Of course I wish we didn’t have to do this. I want nothing more than to sit on Dallas Hall Lawn with my friends, sipping coffee before walking to class together. I miss my sorority, I miss the energy of campus, I miss chatting with professors in office hours, and I miss exploring Dallas with my friends and staying up all night in our dorms laughing and talking. But there are far larger factors at play in this moment than my own selfish desires. I cannot justify going back to school and endangering the entire Dallas community just because I’m bored at home.
My heart goes out to the incoming first-year students and the 2021 seniors. Maybe if we get this right now, we can still have a spring 2021 semester that resembles normalcy. I miss everything that used to exist, but acting like this virus isn’t real or threatening does not bring back that long-gone reality. Safety protocols like online instruction do not hinder our return to normal, they help us get there sooner. I want nothing more than to put this virus behind me, too, but the only way to do that is to get rid of it in the first place.
My one regret about online instruction is intertwined with my outrage at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They are holding our international students hostage, twisting the arms of universities to force them to open or risk making their international students transfer or face deportation. But we can stand strong. We don’t have to be bullied by ICE. As universities rush to figure out a solution that protects the dignity of every student, some are offering in-person classes for international students. This brings me to my third point:
3. Have an on-campus option for international students only. It is well within SMU’s power to offer a one-credit class for international students to protect them from deportation. Some universities, like Columbia, NYU and UC Berkeley, are already working on similar initiatives. It is the humane thing to do. If we had just a few professors willing to hold any class for international students to take, we could keep Dallas safe and protect our students from across the globe. I see this as the only scenario serious enough to warrant in-person instruction. We don’t have to give into xenophobia even if ICE does. We can help our international students in a time of unprecedented need while still mitigating the risk to Dallas as a whole.
Safety protocols like online instruction do not hinder our return to normal, they help us get there sooner.
As one of the state’s premier universities, SMU has the responsibility to set the expectation for what quality higher education looks like in Texas. If we do our part now, perhaps other universities will follow our example and we can prevent outbreaks in other cities and college towns across the state. Perhaps our taking a stand, a luxury we have as a private university, will convince someone like Governor Abbott that endangering children, teenagers and teachers in our Texas public schools is selfish, inhumane and completely unnecessary. It disturbs me that I cannot do more, but I refuse to stay silent within my own small sphere of influence. We still have a sliver of time to make things right. We don’t have to threaten the safety of our students and professors or endanger the Dallas community at large.
It has never been more important that we do our part to keep our community safe. These are the decisions that define not only our leadership but also our place in history. In my mind, I cannot justify the undue risk to hundreds of thousands of lives by opening up because we are too stiff-minded to imagine another way of operating. This situation is awful, but the plan I’ve laid out is the only humane response we can take. I understand it sounds severe, but the situation is severe. There is too much at stake to be selfish now. If we open up when we do not have to, we will be responsible for the sickness and death that will occur as a result. I cannot justify it. Can you?
Paloma Rentería is a rising junior with majors in CCPA and political science and minors in English and law and legal reasoning. She has served as a student senator, resident assistant, and a member of mock trial and Alpha Chi Omega. She enjoys learning about politics, drinking coffee and using her voice to create a more inclusive, just and compassionate space at SMU and beyond.
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