The Problem with NYU's Plan to Return
...and what the ideal return to in-person schooling looks like.
New York University, an open-campus university in the middle of an international COVID hotspot, recently announced to its student body that in-person classes will resume on the first day of classes, January 24th, while “recognizing the need for flexibility”. At first glance, this seems reasonable – however, what does the “need for flexibility” look like to NYU? Let’s have a look:
“Faculty should anticipate that many students may need to keep up with their classes remotely…faculty should plan accordingly and ensure that students who are unable to attend class in person are able to fully keep up with coursework and will not be disadvantaged academically. It will be up to faculty to determine what specific provisions to make for students to keep up with their classes…students should not expect that they can attend in-person classes remotely for the duration of the semester, as flexibility is meant to be granted on a temporary basis only.”
The issue with the above definition of flexibility is the last line. Flexibility, to the university, is apparently meant to only be granted “temporarily” to students, insinuating that we shouldn’t expect long-term, reliable accommodations to study remotely as needed throughout the semester. Let’s assume I have a professor who will only allow me to join class by Zoom if I show a positive PCR result. If I only go get tested when I’m symptomatic (and am thus likely already contagious), by the time I’m able to show a positive result I’ll have unnecessarily exposed my classmates to COVID just to preserve my standing in the course. Additionally, if my professor only allows me 5 days of isolation (per the CDC guidance), I may even still be infectious when I return to campus. While most, if not all, of those classmates are boosted, they still might live with high-risk individuals or be immunocompromised themselves. The strain this could place on surrounding communities is alarming to think about.
On the other hand, 98% of NYU students are vaccinated, administration has implemented a booster requirement, and masks are required in campus buildings. In theory, this should provide as safe an environment as we can hope for in this day and age – however, the reality will likely not pan out this way. Per NYU’s announcement, “acceptable” masks for the spring semester include “surgical or medical procedure masks, KN95 masks, KF94 masks, or N95 masks”. They mention the possibility of surgical masks being available at “various locations”, but don’t state where these locations are, how they plan to keep these adequately stocked, or how many masks each student is allotted. KN94’s and N95’s can run upwards of $40-50 for a single box – a price tag out of reach for many students, not to mention the fact that they are often in impossibly short supply.
With all of that said, I do not advocate for a fully online semester. Nor do I advocate for NYU’s current plan as is. To me, the ideal return to in-person university this semester goes as follows:
Free high-quality masks for students and faculty. Tap your ID, and you can pick up a surgical mask/KN94/N95. Or – simply get one with each COVID test. Not only does this incentivize testing, but is an incredibly simple method to distribute masks.
Mandate weekly PCR testing again, at least until the omicron surge completely falls. It is not enough to “expect” students to test, it must be required.
Have a remote option running throughout the entire semester for all courses. For larger courses, professors should have a Zoom running every class and anyone who wants to join remotely can do so – it would actually be easier to track attendance, participation, etc. For smaller classes, perhaps a Zoom would only be set up if a student emails and states that they would like to exercise that option. I have had classes use each of these methods before and they have worked extremely well – and much of the technology is already in place for it.
The administration must consider “flexibility” to be a long-term, permanent accommodation rather than a temporary reprieve.
With the above accommodations, and a shift in mindset towards long-term hybrid education, I believe NYU and other institutions can run an in-person semester in a safer manner – but it requires embracing the remote option and spending the resources on increasing tests and high-quality masks, not rejecting these options.
As always, feel free to reach out with any comments, questions, or ideas for new pieces! Happy new year, and stay safe and healthy.