Art by Madeline Duvall
Uncertainty is the word on everyone’s lips, pens and keyboards lately. No one can definitively say how the coronavirus will affect the world in the coming months — regardless of how much planning, praying or predicting takes place.
Pepperdine recently announced its plan to resume in-person instruction in the fall, provided that LA moves into its third stage of reopening. While this solution — the restoration of normality in the face of abnormality — is what many crave, is it a feasible solution for every student?
COVID-19 is not a one-size-fits-all problem, so it should not warrant a one-size-fits-all-solution. Pepperdine should offer online alternatives for every in-person class, letting students decide for themselves whether returning to campus is safe.
The world is a different place today than it was the last time we ate at the Caf or went to Celebration Chapel. Many students have new financial restraints that did not exist before COVID-19. With 40.8 million Americans jobless since March — the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression — it’s impossible to assume students have the same financial capabilities they did when they accepted their admittance to Pepperdine. This means expensive housing fees and meal plans may no longer be an option for some families.
Last semester, many of the 43% of students who lived off campus faced particularly adult issues: paying hefty fees to break leases, scrambling to find subletters or coughing up monthly rent for an apartment they no longer lived in.
Next semester, more problems will arise for these students. The recently altered 2020–2021 academic calendar now leaves almost three months of no class in the winter when students will need to pay rent.
During the semester, it is possible government restrictions will increase, forcing Pepperdine to terminate in-person classes. In this case, some students will still be tied to a lease and stuck with the financial burden of paying rent for an apartment they no longer need.
Many will prefer to go home to their families in this event — for comfort reasons as much as financial. Living at home means free laundry and meals in addition to having to buy fewer household necessities.
The alternative to signing a lease is living on campus, which comes with a new set of risks. According to the updated housing plans, students will still live in pairs and share communal restrooms with up to 11 others. Since there are no plans to prevent students from having cars on campus — and why would there be — there is no way to guarantee that students will not leave campus and contract COVID-19 and then spread it to their suitemates or roommates.
Is it fair to force students to return to campus when it puts their health at risk? A young, healthy college student dying from the coronavirus is unlikely, but it does happen. Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said this himself in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. Many students will be willing to take this risk, but it is a choice they should be able to make for themselves.
Alternatively, many do not fear for their own health but for that of their loved ones. Students with at-risk parents or family members might feel safer taking online classes at home. Returning to campus could mean they will not be able to see their family for the entire semester in addition to a 14-day quarantine period. What if that family member were to die from the virus during this time? This is an extreme scenario but one that is possible during this unprecedented time. The coronavirus claimed the lives of at least 112,967 Americans, and that number will keep growing.
To add to the risk, Pepperdine could have more students on campus than ever this year. Pepperdine prides itself on consecutively ranking among the top 5 in the nation for highest study abroad participation — at least 67 percent of all Seaver undergraduate students study abroad during their sophomore year. Where will these students go if the programs are canceled due to travel or visa restrictions?
The International Programs office already canceled its Shanghai program and, if the cancellations follow the same pattern as last semester, more could be coming. If students avoiding off-campus leases also opt to stay on campus, how will there be space for everyone given the social distancing restrictions? Even if Pepperdine is logistically able to fit all of these additional students on campus, the sheer number of bodies will increase the risk of an on-campus COVID-19 outbreak.
International students face even more obstacles. Some will not be able to obtain the visas necessary to re-enter the U.S. due to closed embassies and consulates. Others in remote countries could face difficulties in booking international flights.
In President Jim Gash’s June 1 President’s Briefing, he addressed this issue: “It is our hope and desire to accommodate as many as possible through distance learning and through other protocols and procedures to allow them to stay on track, but we’re not in a position at this point to make sweeping promises about these matters.”
These students deserve a promise from the administration to grant them access to classes remotely. Do not force them to fall behind because of circumstances out of their control. Pepperdine will need to offer online accommodations for students with autoimmune disorders and students who test positive for the coronavirus mid-semester.
Students who need to go through 14-day quarantine periods or suffer from mental health struggles related to the crisis will also need accommodations. Online options will need to be possible, so extend it to all students. Recording the in-person classes and offering them via Zoom or Courses will ensure that every student will be able to participate regardless of their situation.
With students suing schools for offering online classes without tuition cuts, it is understandable why Pepperdine might fear giving students the option to distance-learn. Maybe this means students who opt to take online courses will need to sign an agreement at the start of the semester agreeing to pay the same tuition as everyone else. The reality of the situation is that whether the courses are in person or online, no one is getting the same experience they got last fall.
Social distancing measures in the classroom prohibit the small group work typical of Pepperdine classes. Fine arts performances, athletic events and other student life traditions such as Blue and Orange Madness or Frosh Follies will not be possible unless the county changes its restrictions. As companies announce remote working until at least 2021, the incentive to be near Los Angeles for internship and work opportunities decreases.
This is not the Pepperdine most students signed up for. The world is changing, and Pepperdine’s students are changing faster than the University is willing to accommodate. Let students decide which option is safest for them. Until there is a widely available vaccine, the future is broadly uncertain — as we saw last semester, plans can change rapidly.
Many students want to return to campus. It is terrific that Pepperdine is doing what it can to make that happen. Do not, however, make students who feel they cannot return to campus in the fall choose between postponing their degree and losing their families, finances or lives.
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