Letter to the Editor: Student leaders question Tulane’s hasty reopening

Michael Chen and Elsa Rothenberg

This statement is not an official statement of the Undergraduate Student Government

August 18, 2020

To the Tulane Administration, faculty, staff, parents, and student body:

We, the Vice Presidents of the Tulane University Undergraduate Student Government, disavow the reopening of Tulane University for the fall 2020 semester, an action that we believe was made with inadequate consultation of faculty, staff and the student body. This statement was not written in our capacity as the USG Executive Board but in our roles as student leaders.

In the last few weeks, multiple peer institutions have decided to reverse their reopening plans for the fall. Princeton University, with an undergraduate enrollment of 5,267 students, decided to move to a fully remote fall semester on Aug. 7. Both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame, with undergraduate enrollments of 19,117 and 8,731 students, respectively, have decided to walk back their reopening plans in the last three days alone after positivity rates shot up due to parties and mass-gatherings of students.

Tulane University must take these cases seriously to protect its 8,610 undergraduate students as well as many more faculty and staff members from this deadly pandemic. Within only a week of reopening for New Student Orientation, there have already been recorded cases of Tulane students attending parties off campus, congregating in mass-gatherings, and disregarding the mandate for wearing masks in public. This not only endangers other students who are at serious risk of infection but the rest of the city as well. Orleans Parish is at risk of an active outbreak, as its hospitals are reported unable to absorb a wave of new COVID infections without substantial surge capacity.

This university prides itself on its cutting-edge research and its efforts to promote a diverse student population. The current reopening plan not only disregards scientific evidence but also alienates students and members of the New Orleans community who face health inequities based on their race and ethnicity.

According to research conducted by scientists from Yale University School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, students must be tested every two days, which is stricter than the current guidelines from the CDC, in order to maintain a controllable number of COVID-19 infections amongst a cohort of 5,000 students. Furthermore, this plan also only works in the case that campus is closed to the outside community. With 52% of students living off-campus and easy pedestrian access for non-Tulane affiliated community members, the university’s campus is vulnerable to transmission of the virus by those who do not live on campus.

Last week, the Tulane Chapter of the American Association of University Professors expressed their “deep distress” over the university’s fall reopening plan. In a survey of its faculty members, the AAUP found that 59% of faculty members were reported to be uncomfortable with the Fall Reopening plan, and only 23% supported bringing all students back to campus. While the administration continues to tout the measures that it has implemented, it has not conducted a school-wide survey or shared how officials made decisions to reopen, according to faculty members.

Faculty and staff opinions should be held in high regard, and these community members should have had more of a say in the design of the reopening plan. As student leaders, we were not involved in the decision to reopen campus. Moreover, we do not feel confident in the enforcement mechanisms for the reopening plan.

Policies have not been laid out clearly to all students, and enforcement duties have been delegated to campus staff members and students, who are endangered by these responsibilities. For instance, Resident Advisors were not provided gloves, face shields, or hand sanitizer by the university for nightly rounds and to help with move-in. The numerous reports of policy violations only further confirm that students do not feel compelled to conform to university restrictions.

Tulane students agree with the faculty’s disapproval of the reopening plan. The Tulane Hullabaloo conducted a survey and found that almost 47% of student respondents would prefer to take all classes online rather than continue with the hybrid model. Students have also reported concern for their peers’ willingness to follow the university’s guidelines as well as coming back to campus due to the increasing rate of COVID-19 cases per capita, a statistic that Louisiana is leading the rest of the country in currently. Academic success and community health must be prioritized by the university, but this plan seems to have put reputation and finances ahead of those considerations.

The World Health Organization has advised state governments to only pursue reopening plans if the positivity rate in those states has been lower than 5% for at least 14 days. For universities that have decided not to reopen due to the impact of COVID-19, many are located in states that have high positivity rates, such as North Carolina with a positivity rate of 6% and Indiana with one of 8.7%. Some have even walked back their reopening plan even though the state they are located in has a lower positivity rate than 5%. Both Princeton University and Michigan State University have decided to go fully remote for the semester even though they live in states with  1.4% and 2.5% positivity rates, respectively. Currently, Louisiana has a 5.3% positivity rate, according to statistics provided by Johns Hopkins University.

When considering its plan for reopening, Tulane must be aware of the community that we are part of as well. We live in a city whose population is 59.7% African American. As increasing levels of evidence show that racial and ethnic minority groups are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to long-standing systemic health and social inequities, it is crucial that Tulane does not further endanger the lives of the New Orleans community.

We hope that Tulane will reconsider its decision to reopen the university for the semester. While remote learning is certainly a challenge for many students, including ourselves, we must consider the impacts that this fall semester will have if it continues in person.

Signed,

Michael Chen, Vice President for Finance

Elsa Rothenberg, Vice President for Student Organizations

Reagan McKinney, Executive Vice President

Ingeborg Hyde, Vice President for Academic Affairs

Jamie Roa, Vice President for Student Life

Olivia Mullaney, Director of Civic Engagement

Sam Hoffman, Director of Communications/Webmaster

Deja Wells, Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity

Maggie Amen, Director of Student Engagement

LaKia Williams, Director of Student Health and Wellness

This statement is not an official statement of the Undergraduate Student Government

This article was updated Aug. 25 to accurately cite the study that shows university students should be tested every two days. It was originally attributed to administrators at Vassar College. While a member of the administration contributed to the linked commentary on the journal article, not all authors are members of the Vassar administration.