From a public health perspective, the situation we find ourselves in is unavoidable, but it is not entirely outside of our control.
Students' return in the spring might bring with it a new season, but it will not eradicate the virus. Therefore, we need to adapt now to be better prepared for the upcoming semester
Sophomores and juniors have been on campus two weeks, and my confidence in Furman’s COVID-19 response plan grows daily. The decision to test all in-person students proved to be well worth the hassle, and the random surveillance testing that begins this week has worked well at other schools. Once-skeptical students are settling in to some semblance of normalcy, and I have yet to speak to anyone on campus who isn’t glad to be here. But the threat of an outbreak is like a paper due at the end of the week, casting a shadow over our idyllically mundane Tuesdays in spite of our efforts, whether conscious or not, to ignore it.
Unfortunately, that shadow is one we will be dealing with for a while. An unprecedented amount of money and effort is being poured into developing a vaccine (or vaccines, plural), and we should applaud that. But former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb estimates that a safe and effective vaccine will not be “licensed for general use” until the end of the second quarter of 2021—after the spring semester is over. So far, Furman is in a better position than many other schools across the South, and President Davis has told the Paladin that the spring will look pretty similar to the fall. From a public health perspective, the situation we find ourselves in is unavoidable, but it is not entirely outside of our control. Students, faculty, staff, and administrators should all be asking some version of the same question: given our constraints, how can we improve and make the most of the Furman experience amidst a pandemic?
One way to do just that would be to invest in a limited number of high quality, safe, in-person, on-campus events. Students’ daily routines are now too often characterized by boredom and Zoom fatigue, calling to mind the words of Simon and Garfunkel: “hiding in my room, safe within my womb, I touch no one and no one touches me.” But what if a couple of big CLPs were held in the football stadium or on the mall in front of the library? What if we had a series of outdoor movies or musical events? Even as we recognize that normal social interaction is a long way off, I think students would appreciate and make the most of opportunities to gather together in a non-virtual environment.
Obviously, such gatherings would need to be limited by law, university policy and common sense, but they would provide several benefits. In addition to boosting morale and school spirit, they could make student interactions in Travelers Rest and Greenville safer by giving students more and better things to do on campus, thereby decreasing the chance that they seek out bars and parties that violate the Paladin Promise when they do venture outside of the bubble. One recent study linked the reopening of colleges for face-to-face instruction with a nationwide increase of approximately 3,000 COVID-19 cases per day. Structuring both on- and off-campus events in a more thoughtful way could help both Furman and the broader communities we are a part of mitigate that risk.
Furthermore, the challenges posed by planning and executing in-person events during a pandemic would present an opportunity to interrupt institutional inertia on campus for the better. For example, I don’t know anyone who made it a habit to go to RA-sponsored events pre-pandemic, and Zoom makes attendance at such events even less likely. That could change, though, depending on the extent to which Housing and Residence Life is willing to think differently about what its role in campus life is and could be. In fact, all students—and the organizations they are a part of—should be asking these same questions. What makes our organization distinctive? What truly matters to us? How are we going to pursue it in a way that gets people excited? I do not mean to suggest that all virtual events should suddenly switch to being in person. Far from it! But engaging students via Zoom is hard, and we would do well to start thinking about creative, in-person alternatives.