Hopes and worries for the coming academic year

Image by nile from Pixabay

In some places, the fall semester has already started but here classes don’t begin for another week or so. It’s hard to believe the summer is already over even though it seems like it lasted a million years. Time has definitely gotten weird.

The plan for the fall semester here looks more less like it does on many other college campuses. Some classes will be offered in person, most will be online. Some students will be staying in the residence halls but there will be a lot more restrictions on what dorm life will look like than there has been in the past. A lot of the usual campus activities will either be held virtually or scaled back or cancelled altogether. Needless to say, there are going to be a lot of moving parts to this thing and no one really knows what’s going to happen.

It could be fine. Or it could be a disaster.

In New York State as a whole, we’ve been able to keep the virus more or less under control for a couple of months now. But in my local area, there was a relatively minor but noticeable spike right after the Fourth of July, one that resulted in our region having the highest infection rate in the state for a couple of weeks—higher even than New York City. One of the biggest sources of that spike was a local outdoor party attended by around 200 college age adults where face masks and social distancing were not as much of a thing as they probably should have been. By the end of July, more than 40 cases had been traced back to this one party.

As a(n older) millennial, I know what it’s like to be painted with a broad brush about Young People Today(TM) and the problems they supposedly cause with their inconsiderate and irresponsible behavior. It’s not right or fair—I’ve seen plenty of older adults acting just as irresponsibly as these partygoers did, if not more so—but it’s hard not to see the story of this party as a miniature version of the worst case scenario for a college campus right now. Not because college-age people are inherently incapable of acting responsibly but because in a large enough setting with a large enough number of people, there’s always going to be someone who’s not doing what they should be doing and messes it up for everyone else. An outbreak of some kind seems almost inevitable in a campus environment, no matter how many social distancing and mask-wearing policies you enact. Especially if you have no real way of enforcing those policies.

If I’m being honest, I wish the powers that be at my campus had decided to keep the fall semester fully online but I understand why they didn’t. They had a hard choice to make. An ugly choice between the financial future/continuing existence of our institution and the safety of the people in our campus community. It’s a choice they shouldn’t have had to make but our state government is struggling right now and our federal government is basically nonfunctioning. So this is what we’re stuck with.

In the communications from our president and provost, they keep saying that this is going to be a fall semester unlike any other. If I have one hope for this school year, I hope that that’s true, that it will remain unique in the history of higher education and society in general. Even if things ultimately go pretty well, I hope that we never have a fall semester like this one again. That by this time next year things will be under better control and that as a nation we’ll have better leadership to get us through whatever challenges, old and new, we might face by then.

That’s a lot to ask for and some days I’m more optimistic than others. I just know that no matter what happens, this fall is going to be a learning process for us all. We won’t come out unscathed but I hope as much as possible everyone is able to stay safe and well through it all.

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