Tulane community responds to reopening plan: “It’s going to be a sh-t show”

Haley Soares and Harrison Thorn

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On August 19, Tulane University will resume predominantly in-person classroom instruction and the city will be inundated with thousands of students. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools are choosing to operate completely online for the coming semester, while others, like Tulane, have chosen to retain face-to-face classes in various capacities. This decision has been met with both criticism and support. 

In order to gauge broader community reactions, The Tulane Hullabaloo sent out a survey last week asking the Tulane community to share their thoughts on the university’s reopening plan. The survey had limited reach and only four different groups are represented in the results: current students, alumni, parents and faculty. The survey did not make a distinction between undergraduate and graduate students, or between staff and faculty.  

Primarily, the survey asked respondents to share which method of classroom instruction they think Tulane should follow as the school enters the fall semester. A mixture of students, parents, alumni and faculty participated in the survey, with almost half of respondents preferring an entirely online education for the semester. 

Tulane students, parents, alumni, and faculty respond to Tulane’s reopening plan

Current Tulane students make up more than 75% of responses to the survey, and their responses tend to mirror the overall response. While 43% of total respondents favor distanced learning, the percentage rises to just under 47% among students. These participants agree that Tulane classes should be entirely online this semester, rather than go forward with the current hybrid method of instruction — several, in survey comments, deeming it an inevitable “sh-t show.”

“I wonder if a university with the resources of Tulane couldn’t try to find a better solution,” graduate student Wes Evans said. 

37% of students said Tulane should use a hybrid model this fall, but students of varying opinions are apprehensive regarding the safety implications of the current plan. They repeatedly expressed skepticism that their peers would follow the guidelines laid out by the school and emphasized in an email from Dean Erica Woodley to the student body. The email followed news of students hosting large gatherings over the July 4 weekend in New Orleans. 

Sophomore Chloe Costigan is in favor of the university’s plans to return to campus, but recognizes that Tulane students should be conscious of their unique position as students within New Orleans. “There is a mentality when you’re on a university campus that you’re in this little bubble and sometimes you forget that you’re in a city, it’s not where we’re from, it’s someone else’s home,” she said. 

With this in mind, Tulane is taking steps to ensure that all students are familiar with the school’s COVID-19 related protocols and resources. All students must complete a web-based training and sign an acknowledgement form before returning to campus.

Dina Siegal, a parent, agrees that the responsibility to make sure the reopening is successful falls on students. “I think the students are taking a lot more risks than the adults are, so maybe they’re just doing some self reflection and realizing that their own behaviors could put the whole thing at risk,” she said. 

According to the New York Times, the seven-day average for new cases peaked in Louisiana this spring on April 7. On Aug. 2, the seven-day average for new cases was higher than it was during that April peak. Though new cases in Orleans Parish are currently trending down, this is a worrying statistic for a myriad of Tulane community members.

“Just this week, Louisiana as a state reached No. 1 per capita state for COVID cases right now,”  fifth-year Ph.D. student Laura Scott said. “And while we are one of the lower parishes in the state in terms of per capita, when you think about how that relates to the rest of the country and the rest of the world that’s not really saying much.”

While students are concerned by the idea of reopening campus at all, parents are comparing Tulane’s plan to fight the spread of the virus compared to other schools, and many like what they see. 

“Compared to every other parent I know who’s heard almost nothing from their universities, their kids’ schools, it just feels like Tulane is doing a great job under pretty difficult circumstances,” Siegal said. 

Tulane faculty, on the other hand, seems to be more wary of the school’s plan, with nearly 70%  responding that they would prefer an entirely online semester. A recent letter submitted to The Advocate by Tulane professors details their concerns regarding the health and safety implications of bringing students back to New Orleans.

Tulane claims their plan is informed by the opinions of experts, but they may not be taking full advantage of the resources immediately available to them.

“They have this renowned public health school right at their fingertips, like inside their door, and I’m hearing faculty here on a daily basis saying that they are not being listened to and that their expertise is not being utilized to its full potential by the administration,” Scott said. 

With some students believing that the school is ignoring prominent public health experts, several have come to another conclusion about the motivation to reopen: money.

“We have underestimated the virus basically at every single turn, as a nation. I think that wishful thinking and monetary incentives push us to keep underestimating it,” Evans said. “While I believe that they are acting with … everybody’s interests in heart, they can get sidetracked with things that aren’t as important as the lives of their community.”

Tulane’s emphasis on serving the New Orleans community echoes across student responses, many still concerned with the wellbeing of the greater New Orleans community more so than their own safety. 

“We know that this is primarily affecting and having high death rates among people of color,” junior Mikala Nellum said. “The surrounding New Orleans community is people of color, and so when I think about who is truly at risk, it doesn’t even register to me that it’s truly the students.”

In Orleans Parish, Black residents made up about 75% of all COVID-19 related deaths, but account for only about 60% of the population. The racial disparities in COVID-19 cases are the subject of apprehension for some survey respondents, who fear that Tulane, a predominantly white institution, is more directly endangering the Black residents of New Orleans and the Black staff that Tulane employs.

With days ticking down to the beginning of classes, it seems less and less likely that Tulane will budge in its plan to continue with the hybrid classroom model despite an increasing air of anxiety among the Tulane community. Though students may ache for a return to normalcy on campus, they acknowledge that it comes with a steep responsibility and potential cost.

“I’d much rather be safe and not really have a normal senior year, than have to live with the fact that I could have been the reason someone got sick and died,” senior Trey Sartor said.

The article was updated on 08/08/2020 at 10:24 p.m. to better reflect the context of student Chloe Costigan’s quote and to add clarity to survey results.