Keep Away From The Hive
The return of Georgia Tech students and faculty to campus in the fall of 2020 represents an immediate, dangerous, and avoidable threat to our community.
During my time at Georgia Tech, I have witnessed firsthand the visceral and justified outrage our campus community exhibits at the unnecessary deaths of its members. Repeated suicides have been a common source of such outcries — the protests, violence, and calls for administrative action concerning mental health and suicide prevention in the wake of the suicide-by-cop of Scout Schultz come easily to mind — but we’ve dealt with the tragic loss of students to inexplicable accidents and terrible illnesses as well. In almost every case, the Georgia Tech student body and, though sometimes with pressure, administration have attempted to channel their shared grief into preventative measures designed to protect those who call our beautiful slice of Midtown home.
And yet, in the face of a global pandemic, the likes of which the world has not seen for a century, the University System of Georgia (USG), the administration and portions of the student body seem willing to court tragedy with little concern. The return to campus of Georgia Tech students and faculty for the fall 2020 semester represents one of the most dangerous and immediate threats our community has faced in years, and it is not unreasonable to expect that the resumption of in-person instruction will result in the needless suffering of those we call friends, coworkers, professors and peers.
The sad, frustrating reality of such a claim is not lost on me. Promises of a return to campus, a joyous reunification with friends, and a semblance of college normalcy have anchored me throughout this dismal, distanced affair, and the thought of relinquishing such comforting ideas is, to put it mildly, crushing.
However, we cannot afford to let emotional bias cloud dispassionate evaluation. In its most pernicious form, that vice has led Covid-19 to be labeled a hoax in the loonier fringes of our developed country, despite the fact that the virus has killed some 138,000 Americans. The pandemic is a real and present danger, and to conduct any reasonable critique of Georgia Tech’s reopening plan, certain empirical, undisputed truths must be recognized.
Scientific and statistical evidence indicate that every demographic is susceptible to infection, including college students. The virus is also highly transmissible even before its myriad possible symptoms present. Fortunately, recent scientific endeavors examining critical viral traits like its contagiousness and incubation period have informed widespread initiatives for basic safety measures like facial coverings and social distancing.
While it is true that Covid-19 mortality rates are slim for healthy, college-age people, Georgia Tech’s faculty often fall into more treacherous age categories, and many of the thousands of students at the institute lack the robust immune systems that favor recovery. And remember that recovery does not equal an unscathed escape from illness; the prospect of yellow jackets dying of the disease or facing lung damage, heart damage, crippling exhaustion, or some other nefarious and persistent complication of Covid-19 is not unlikely.
A Series of Incredulous Questions
On March 25, 2020, when Georgia Tech students on spring break received emails from President Ángel Cabrera under the guidance of the USG (which governs all public universities in the state) that all instruction would take place virtually for the remainder of the semester, there were 150 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Georgia. This tally evidently presented enough perceived risk to the USG to merit a campus closure.
Three months later, on July 13, 2020, and approximately one month prior to the in-person reopening of Georgia Tech’s campus, Fulton County alone reported 11,080 cases, more than seventy times the statewide count in March. Such a grim multiple seems pitiful when one considers that the state of Georgia itself, which now has more than 120,000 cases, boasts a whopping 800 times as many cases as it did when Georgia Tech’s campus was closed by the USG. These data beg a question: what could possibly justify reopening campus in light of such a massive delta in new Covid-19 cases?
The USG, and by extension Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp, would prefer students and faculty somehow believe that that the safety guidelines outlined in Georgia Tech’s Return-to-Campus plan are based on scientific evidence and rigorous data and should do just the trick, but a brief journey through Georgia’s recent news headlines and my school email inbox easily dispenses with this fallacy.
One must look no further than a sickeningly naive executive order recently signed by Georgia’s dotard-in-chief that effectively banned local governments from enacting mandatory mask policies. Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, among other Georgia mayors, refused to rescind her city’s mask mandate, and as I write, Kemp’s office is suing Bottoms and the city of Atlanta for attempting to protect their citizens in a pandemic.
This delusional behavior adds another link to the long chain of Kemp’s mismanagements — think premature nonessential business reopenings, manipulated Covid-19 case statistics, and Kemp’s belated April “discovery” of asymptomatic transmission — that has inflamed Georgia’s pandemic crisis in recent months. Why should we expect Kemp’s conduct to change with the season?
Unrelenting optimists may nonetheless still trust the USG and its Board of Regents to look out for Georgia Tech, but the body has shown itself to be plagued with the same remarkable stupidity that pours plentifully from the doors of the governor’s mansion. For example, on June 16, when I received Tech’s email containing a reopening plan per USG guidance, the plan merely “strongly encouraged” the use of cloth face coverings on campus.
Extensive scientific research had predetermined this weak recommendation to be a blatant endangerment of the health of students, faculty, staff, and administrators, yet for a time Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia (UGA) were the only two schools without mask mandates in the U.S. News list of the top twenty public universities. A subsequent petition drafted and signed by more than 750 Georgia Tech faculty pleaded for the USG to “empower the President of Georgia Tech to act independently… informed by scientific evidence”. This petition, accompanied by similar outrage from UGA faculty, caused the press to mercilessly bludgeon the USG, whose fickle board released a compulsory mask requirement less than a week later.
Suffice to say that neither the USG nor its gubernatorial master seem keen to act in the interests of our campus community during a reopening. In fact, when recently interrogated as to why he so vehemently opposes mask mandates in Georgia, Brian Kemp vapidly replied “Georgians don’t need a mandate to do the right thing.”
Kemp’s moronic statement, which out of context could be mistaken for the gentle idealism of a child, is another root of much faith in the efficacy of Georgia Tech’s reopening. A sense exists that Georgia Tech students don’t need a mandate to do the right thing either, but we should not forget that a dangerous minority of college students clings to the same fatuities as the governor and the Board of Regents.
A mask mandate and other administrative policies in the plan cannot and will not solve this problem. Where there are rules, there are rulebreakers, in this case lazy and weak-willed solipsists who deem their mundane conveniences to be above the common good. Senseless frat parties have endured on Tech’s dormant campus as the pandemic has worsened over the summer, and one need not look far on Instagram to find students blatantly flaunting safety protocols away from campus.
What sane and sensible mind could in light of such precedent behavior declare that we weary college students, who have bemoaned this prolonged separation from our friends, will suddenly exercise appropriate caution en masse when reunited with one another?
Is it reasonable to assume that where both the USG and state governor have a record of actively impeding pandemic safety measures, and where Georgia Tech faculty must fight desperately for reopening decisions to be made based on scientific evidence, and where many college students are habitually unreliable at practicing safety measures, and where the case levels in Georgia are orders of magnitude higher now than they were when campus closed originally, Georgia Tech’s return to campus is a good idea?
Facing the Looming Threat
In a fascinating July 14 Atlanta Journal Constitution article about the possibilities of remote learning, guest columnist David Joyner, a senior research associate in the College of Computing, described the possibility of a Covid-19 outbreak on campus in the fall as a “looming threat that… could force another sudden shift to remote learning.”
To mitigate this looming threat for the sake of our peers, professors, faculty and friends at the institute, it’s clear that the safest choice for Georgia Tech is to follow the example of other leading schools like Rutgers, Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown, the University of Southern California, our neighbors Emory, Clark Atlanta, Spelman, and Morehouse, as well as the entire Fulton County School District, and continue to deliver virtual instruction for the fall semester with only minor exceptions. Georgia Tech’s conduct this fall will either illustrate or denigrate its reputation for leadership and responsibility, and I hope our school chooses wisely.