The University of Alabama has released a guiding plan to return to full campus operations. University President Dr. Stuart R. Bell has said, “We will be nimble. We will adjust. We will learn. Ultimately, we will win and be Still Tide Together.”
A petition “Statement of Expectations for Worker Health and Safety for Academic Year 2020-2021” sponsored by the United Campus Workers of Alabama CWA Local 3965 expressed concerns over the University’s plan. It stated that many members of the University community were concerned about health and safety issues, saying that “older adults and people with underlying health conditions are at increased risk for severe infection and death.” It stated:
While recommendations for mandatory mask use, social distancing, flexibility with class format, and robust testing and tracing offer a solid foundation for the physical aspects of health on campus, many of the System’s recommendations include caveats like “when available” that leave the door open for under-preparedness, inaction and neglect. Additionally, the UA System Comprehensive Plan made no mention of employment policies, contingency plans for severe outbreaks on campus or in local communities, or structures of accountability for decision makers. It is the university’s moral responsibility to its workers, students and community to adapt its employment policies to ensure safety for workers and the broader University community.
A successful reopening of the University and the return of thousands of students will benefit Tuscaloosa’s economy as much as anything possibly could. The city lost an estimated $2.6 million in revenue per mouth after the University sent its students home in March.
Any success largely depends on the cooperation of the returning students. Temple University‘s Dr. Laurence Steinberg in a New York Times opinion column expressed a pessimistic view of how students will cope with returning to school. In his article “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy” he said that plans for returning students “border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff.”
Steinberg said that the risky behavior of many students, including “reckless driving, criminal activity, fighting, unsafe sex and binge drinking,” was typical of students in their late-adolescence. His team conducted epidemiological studies that have that reached the same conclusions of other such studies on adolescents. He concluded:
My pessimistic prediction is that the college and university reopening strategies under consideration will work for a few weeks before their effectiveness fizzles out. By then, many students will have become cavalier about wearing masks and sanitizing their hands. They will ignore social distancing guidelines when they want to hug old friends they run into on the way to class. They will venture out of their “families” and begin partying in their hallways with classmates from other clusters, and soon after, with those who live on other floors, in other dorms, or off campus. They will get drunk and hang out and hook up with people they don’t know well. And infections on campus — not only among students, but among the adults who come into contact with them — will begin to increase.
At that point, college administrators will find themselves in a very dicey situation, with few good options.
In Florida, which recently reopened its bars, a group of sixteen friends all tested positive for the Coronavirus. In CNNs Madeline Holcombe’s report “16 friends test positive for coronavirus after an outing at a Florida bar” they regretted that they did not wear masks in the crowded bar. Florida has had record setting rates of infection in June. Gino Spocchia reported in The Independent that some of Florida’s recently opened bars and restaurants were forced to close amid new Covid-19 cases.
When University of Alabama students return will they, as Temple’s professor Steinberg predicts of students in general, disregard safety measures both on and off campus? Tuscaloosa community residents have for months practiced safe behavior. The returning students who might become infected will in most cases suffer little. That may not be the case for older permanent residents. Many of the Druid City Health Care system’s ICU units are already full. An increase in infection in the community could overwhelm its healthcare system.
Whether the University of Alabama‘s plans to minimize the spread of the Coronavirus are effective may well depend on student leadership. If there is such leadership the history of Alabama’s flagship university will have a special chapter dedicated to the role that students played in its most important victory.