On Aug. 19, Tulane University will return to in-person classes. New Orleans is poised for an inrush of thousands of young people from all across the country and the world, even as coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths surge. As faculty members, we think this should cause concern not only to our students and fellow campus workers but to everyone living in the wider community.
We recognize Tulane is making herculean efforts to prepare. Massive tents, testing, masking, HVAC upgrades and other mitigation measures are being put in place. However, the virus can be contracted through the eyes, aerosol transmissions are possible, some older HVAC systems cannot be upgraded sufficiently and tests are in short supply in the city, with lab processing times increasing. Perhaps the worst warning sign came over July Fourth weekend as dozens of Tulane students threw parties, posting pictures of themselves without masks and ignoring social distancing mandates all over social media.
As educators whose work focuses on racial and social justice, we find ourselves morally unhinged by the presumption that some lives might become collateral damage in the reopening. We urge universities to adhere to the recommendation issued by a group of leading public health and disability experts, the Accessible Campus Action Alliance, “to adopt explicit policies for safe, equitable, and inclusive online-centric teaching during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Those most impacted by COVID-19 infections and deaths are African American and working class people of color who are disproportionately involved in essential and front-line occupations, including at Tulane. These communities, which already face unjust health care and economic disparities, will have to bear the greatest burdens of disability and even death. Meanwhile, the average Tulane student — with a median family income of $180,700 — will be better resourced to handle a family crisis.
The high-risk reopening plan favored by many administrations has been presented as the select option of what higher education should be doing in the crisis. The passage of House Bill 59 has cleared the legal pathway for this proposition. Universities are now indemnified even if they don’t conform to CDC guidelines for reopening; they merely have to prove that they were “informed” by the guidelines.
The legalization of lax public health standards has already led to horrific normalizations that would have been unthinkable at the start of 2020. At the University of Texas at Austin, eleven custodial workers contracted COVID-19, and one has died. Despite these warning signs, Tulane has not yet taken the lead of the University of Southern California, which reversed its earlier decision to encourage attending classes in person.
We call on our university and other educational institutions to abide by the timeless moral standard that each and every life is worth protecting from harm. We still have time to act and make this the humanistic achievement of the crisis.
associate professors, Tulane University