In August, the University made the hard decision to switch to a fully online fall semester, as the health risk of bringing even just freshman and juniors was deemed too great. With the majority of students off campus right now due to COVID-19, everyone has shifted attention toward the possible return to campus for the spring semester. As such, the University needs to start thinking of what criteria need to be met in order for students to come back. The administration must also decide if it will allow all students to come back or only a portion, and, if it will only be a portion, which students get priority. Clearly, there are a lot of factors the University has to contend with in coming to its decision.
With that being said, the University should only approve an on-campus spring if there is a safe, reliable, widespread vaccine in place by the start of the spring semester. Only then will students be allowed to come back to campus with little to no restrictions in a safe environment, making returning to campus during a pandemic worth the risk.
The necessity of a safe, reliable, widespread vaccine is of utmost importance for students to return to campus. As demonstrated at other universities elsewhere in the country, there have been outbreaks of COVID-19 even with social distancing protocols in effect. Wearing face coverings and enforcing social distancing has proven to be an insufficient method to stop the spread of COVID-19. We cannot expect a different result in the spring unless there is a way to suppress the virus through immunity, which only a vaccine would accomplish.
The University is being conservative in its decision-making. As evidenced by the backtracking from a partly residential to an entirely remote fall, the University will not take any chances of an outbreak happening on campus. With different vaccines in the final stages of testing, it is possible that a vaccine will be ready by the time spring semester comes. If so, the University should be able to guarantee a return to campus for those that want it.
Some may argue that even without a vaccine, bringing a certain portion of students back — for example, seniors — would be a correct and fair decision. After all, it will be seniors’ last chance to study on campus. In the absence of a vaccine, however, having only a portion of students on campus does not warrant the risk of bringing them back. Furthermore, the required social distancing protocols that would have to be implemented means this would not be a real final semester anyway. Only if there were some sort of semblance of a “real” semester should students be allowed back.
While students may want to come back to campus regardless, only by having a vaccine can we be sure this will be a worthwhile time. More frustrating than not coming back to campus at all would be being invited back once more only to have that invitation revoked, as was the case for freshmen and juniors this summer. Worse, we could arrive on campus only to be sent home after an outbreak. Imagine starting the semester on campus, planning out the entire semester as if we will be here for four months, moving everything and getting comfortable, and then being told we have to leave. With a vaccine, there would be almost no plausible explanation for us to leave campus again, and we would be able to truly enjoy the spring semester.
If a vaccine does not come to fruition in time, then the University should proceed as it is now, only allowing those who absolutely need to be on campus to be there. Many students have already found apartments with year-long leases or other living arrangements that may prevent them from coming back to live on campus anyway. A vaccine and little to no restrictions are vital to creating a true campus community and should be the guidepost for the University as it plans for the spring semester.
Elijah Benson is a junior from Newark, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.