Public health experts conclude remote learning is the only safe mode for higher education
Westmont, IL – Hundreds of faculty, staff, and students from 42 Illinois institutions logged on to Zoom last night to participate in a virtual town hall hosted by a coalition of higher education unions statewide. The hour-and-a-half conversation included a presentation and commentary by a panel of expert scientists followed by a Q&A session.
John Miller, President of the University Professionals of Illinois, IFT Local 4100, and an organizer of the event was sympathetic but frank:
"The desire to return to normal should not take the place of science."
Columbia Faculty Association President and event organizer Diana Vallera introduced the purpose of the event: “To ensure faculty, staff, students, and parents have the scientific information needed... so that we can all make informed decisions when it comes to safety.” Vallera also had good news to share on Columbia College specifically: after major collective action on the part of the CFAC union, college administration announced new safety measures and the movement of more classes to an online setting. “This is a start,” said Vallera.
Viewers watched a thorough presentation of safety concerns surrounding reopening our campuses during a pandemic from Dr. Shweta Bansal, Associate Professor of Biology and Infectious Disease Ecology at Georgetown University and expert in epidemiology and public health. After reviewing the risks and realities of opening campuses during a pandemic, from the monumental effort of testing and tracing to the challenges of using PPE properly, she recommended that universities minimize on-campus student presence and provide online education.
“Bringing students to campus and then sending them home in the case of an outbreak is a recipe for disaster,” according to Dr. Bansal. “We have an alternative: online education. And I trust my colleagues across the country to come up with innovative solutions for students.”
Dr. Bansal was joined by three expert panelists: Dr. Gabriel Guzman, Professor of Microbiology at Triton College, Dr. William Mills, Associate Professor in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology at Northern Illinois University, and Dr. Sheila Simons, Professor in the Department of Public Health at Eastern Illinois University. All three are members of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
Dr. Simons pointed out that the major challenge in testing, tracing, and isolating is simple: “we’re human.” People forget with whom they have interacted within the last two weeks, making it difficult to trace spread and exposure in a campus setting.
Dr. Mills stressed the nature of the airborne disease, comparing dormitories to “stationary cruise ships” and reminding viewers that almost all super-spreading events occur indoors. “I don’t think we need to say much more from a scientific point of view.”
Dr. Guzman emphasized that we must prioritize protecting health: “What I’m most afraid of in the fall is that schools in general have already resigned themselves to, ‘Let’s open. We’ll have cases and then we’ll deal with them.’ That’s not a good strategy. Optimism is good but it’s not a good epidemiological strategy!”
Viewers had many questions that panelists expertly answered, but there is still much information regarding campus policies at our colleges and universities that is unanswered at worst and questionable at best. Dr. Bansal, who will be opting to work from home this semester as much as possible, summarized it well:
“If our institutions cannot protect us, it’s up to us to jump in and protect ourselves.”
The unions also encouraged viewers to sign this petition to keep campuses safe.