spring corona column graphic

I remember the first week of this semester sitting in a Zoom call for a Collegian meeting. Our icebreaker was, “How long until Penn State sends us home?”

The most optimistic answer was two months.

And yet, here we are, finishing an incredibly hectic semester. It hasn’t been “normal,” by any means, and the university is planning to pursue the same model in the spring — some classes will be held in person and others online, bringing students back to live on campus regardless.

Penn State seemed to celebrate a victory in November, having gotten through the fall without sending students back home.

But 5,005 positive coronavirus cases since Aug. 7 doesn’t feel like something to celebrate.

It’s worth knowing that none of these students died, an argument likely to be used in support of having students return. But we don’t know what the virus does long term, and it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to trace every single possible point of contact someone who tested positive might have had.

Further, with 50 patients currently hospitalized in Centre County with the coronavirus and only five adult ICU beds available, it doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking.

And with the virus getting a second wind, I sure as hell am not looking forward to seeing how the numbers fare in the spring.

Of course, progress is being made toward a vaccine, as the first people in the U.S. are starting to receive the treatment. This is fantastic, no doubt. And really, I commend Penn State for implementing mandatory, random testing and providing as many resources as it did.

But we did not need to have as many cases as we did, and there is absolutely no justifiable reason to allow it to happen in the spring, too. There is no ethical way for Penn State to resume any in person classes next semester, unless the coronavirus vaccine is available to all students and required.

Penn State’s coronavirus dashboard tells the story all on its own, too. In the week before Thanksgiving break, Penn State reported 393 positive student cases. The next week, 65. The most recent week? 12.

Obviously, we would expect there to be less cases where there are now less people in town. But I think you have to consider why these numbers are so different in the first place. Simply having a higher population isn’t the reason for more cases — having a higher population of people who hang out and party and think they’re invincible, is.

Allowing students to gather in State College and exist in a way that compromises their own health as well as the outside community is to be complicit in the spread of the coronavirus. Penn State has the opportunity — if not the responsibility — to prevent an uptick of thousands of student cases in the small town of State College, an uptick that would greatly endanger its older residents.

There is no way to enforce quarantine among students living off campus. There is no way to prevent any student from attending a 10-person “party” for a friend’s roommate’s birthday, where those students will get drunk together and ruin what little social distancing might have existed in the first place.

Hypothetically, even if off-campus students return to their apartments after Penn State cancels in-person classes, there won’t be nearly as many students gathered in such a small place. Plus, the university can only control the areas it has jurisdiction over, and I think that should be its priority.

Online classes aren’t best for everyone — I know that. But Penn State has offered resources and alternative grading for struggling students.

Of course, there are also local businesses to worry about with the negative economic effects of students staying home. These businesses, like the rest of us, deserve financial help from the government, rather than relying on student traffic that will ultimately hurt the community.

But that’s another column.

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