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Universities across the United States are grappling with how to reopen safely amid a pandemic.

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‘Ethically troubling.’ University reopening plans put professors, students on edge

Come August, hundreds of universities across the United States are poised to reopen their campuses with a mix of online and in-person courses. Only a handful are aiming for an entirely online semester. But as the machinery of higher education cranks back into action, faculty, staff, and students are voicing concerns that, with COVID-19 cases surging in many parts of the country, employees are being forced to put their health—and the health of others—at unnecessary risk.

At many universities, employees will not be permitted to teach or work from home unless—due to age or preexisting health conditions—they’re at risk of a severe outcome from COVID-19. The need to care for children and fear of infection aren’t valid reasons to work remotely, according to some universities. “Employees who care for or live with [high-risk] individuals … should plan to return to campus as scheduled,” the Georgia Institute of Technology’s (Georgia Tech’s) reopening guidelines stated as of 20 July.

Academics across the country are dismayed. At Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), for instance, faculty published an open letter decrying the “limited amount of input faculty, staff, and graduate employees have had on decisions related to our safety.” At Georgia Tech, faculty released a similar letter saying the university’s reopening procedures “do not follow science-based evidence”—and that “no faculty, staff, or student should be coerced into risking their health and the health of their families by working … on campus when there is a remote/online equivalent.”  

Yet financial constraints and political pressure are compelling many universities to reopen. Burdened by budget cuts, many have already laid off or furloughed employees. Not reopening their campuses could mean a further loss of revenue. At several universities, students have petitioned and even sued—unsuccessfully thus far—for tuition refunds for the spring semester because they’re unable to access campus resources or receive in-person instruction.  

Universities that are slated to reopen have developed protocols to try to keep employees safe, with plans that call for physical distancing, mask-wearing, and reduced dorm occupancy. Some have made COVID-19 tests mandatory and created plans to trace contacts and isolate suspected cases. “The health of faculty, staff, and students is the University’s top priority,” a Penn State official wrote in a statement to Science Careers.

But sources at several universities told Science Careers that they consider the plans inadequate—for instance, because they don’t specify how many tests will be available each day or how students will be compelled to wear masks. “I fully expect that I’m going to need to be handing out surgical masks to my students, because some of them are going to come in with bandanas,” says Ian Chandler-Campbell, a Ph.D. student at Boston University who studies applied human development and teaches undergraduates.

Even detailed reopening plans may not be able to contain transmission when thousands of students descend on campus using varied modes of transport, from parts of the country where cases are surging. The University of Washington, Seattle, is currently working to quell an outbreak in its fraternity houses, where at least 136 students have tested positive. At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 37 athletes, coaches, and staff tested positive. And a 21-year-old geology student at Penn State who was living off-campus died of COVID-19 last month.

Academics who are earlier in their careers face especially sharp dilemmas, points out Brian Magerko, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech. Many “are being told to choose between their career advancement and health,” says Magerko, who notes he faces less professional risk if he chooses to stay home because he has tenure. One faculty member at the University of Florida, who wished to remain anonymous because she’s not tenured, says that she has continued to work from home even though her university requires her to be on campus. She worries about her safety, with COVID-19 cases on the rise in Florida. “It’s a huge professional risk, but I’ve been ignoring the rules,” the researcher says.

Reopening campuses could also threaten the surrounding community. “Everyone is at risk here—by me going into class, I’m increasing the likelihood of my grocery store staff or their families getting ill,” Magerko says. “The idea of a university playing those kinds of odds is ethically troubling.”

Holly Kleinschmidt, a Ph.D. student in biochemistry at Penn State, University Park, says she isn’t particularly worried about her own health. But she interacts with faculty, undergraduates, and other campus personnel on a daily basis and worries about the risks to others. “I usually see it as a good thing that I get to interact with so many different populations,” she says. “But in the context of a pandemic, I worry that if anyone is spreading the virus around, it’s going to be me.”

For some, workplace regulations are little help. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employees who are age 65 or older or have preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19 can request to work from home. Leave may be available to others who, for example, live with a high-risk family member through protections afforded by the Family and Medical Leave Act—but that leave is unpaid. “In my view, [university policies should] go beyond compliance with the law and do the right thing—which is to allow [employees] to work from home if they feel at risk,” says Arlene Kanter, a law professor at Syracuse University.

“Getting everyone off campus who doesn’t need to be there … is the only solution,” Georgia Tech’s Magerko says. Unfortunately, that's the “exact opposite” of what most schools are doing, he says.

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