Big Classes (copy)

In this file photo from February 2019, students listen to their lecture in Budig Hall.

After one week of in-person classes, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill closed its doors to stop uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. Four hotspots surfaced in student housing and a fraternity on that campus.

Make no mistake. A similar story will likely play out at the University of Kansas if it follows through on plans to bring students back to classes in person starting Monday. Already this week, other schools, such as Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame, suspended in-person learning because of COVID-19 outbreaks. 

KU hasn’t been honest in its approach to bringing students back. When the Kansan asked about the University’s testing plans, officials declined to answer for months and implemented a saliva testing system three weeks before the start of fall classes. 

When the Kansan asked a routine question about how much money was left in KU’s reserves, we were told this information was unavailable, despite widespread suspicion that concerns about enrollment were driving the push to bring students back in person.

When the Kansan asked about what would happen if a student died from COVID-19, KU replied that there was a public health advisory team to examine the situation.

Worst of all, after a Lawrence Journal-World reporter asked for the results of the survey KU used to justify a return to campus, supposedly by student demand, KU revealed that it never had asked students whether they felt comfortable coming back

These evasive-at-best responses, and one outright lie, are best summed up by law student and student senator Trey Duran.

KU, they said, “is making that cost-and-benefit analysis. But it’s horrifying from a student perspective, because we’re canaries in a coal mine.”

Months of cryptic preparations for in-person instruction will come to nothing if, as many fear, campus reopens and COVID-19 cases rise steadily, affecting not only students, faculty and staff, but also Lawrence residents. On Wednesday, Douglas County confirmed 858 coronavirus cases. How high will KU allow that number to go?

The “science-based approach to reopen campus” disregards a prediction by the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the United States is bracing for “the worst fall, from a public health perspective, we’ve ever had.” Pairing the ever-changing pandemic with the seasonal flu, classrooms this fall could look more like petri dishes than learning spaces.

It appears that the science used to build the Protect KU plan is economics. Students have become the revenue KU needs to stay open. Health and education, meanwhile, are subverted for the sake of a few weeks of cash.

For a plan with such a mercenary motive, the messaging to students is largely idealistic and individualistic. In an email to students Wednesday, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Tammara Durham told students that KU’s “ability to remain open for the fall semester and return in the spring rests with you and your choices.” 

KU is willing to supply one free test and some reusable masks. But it shifts the remaining responsibility to students. In addition to not hosting gatherings and wearing masks at all times while on campus, students are expected to report their peers’ violations of safe behaviors in the name of contact tracing.

Yet unlike in North Carolina, Kansas law makes contact tracing voluntary. How are students going to keep campus open and mitigate the coronavirus when they can opt out of sharing where it is spread? In days, campus will reopen, and KU has failed to acknowledge the dangerous situation it has created. 

If we follow UNC’s lead and then revert to online classes, KU will have an easy scapegoat: its students. But we must resist this narrative and hold the administration accountable for not doing the morally sound thing in a pandemic.

Reopening campus now is too much of a gamble. The risk is health, safety and lives. 

There’s only one true science-based approach: KU must reverse course now.