North Texas Daily

The university perils of returning to in-person classes

The university perils of returning to in-person classes

The university perils of returning to in-person classes
September 23
12:00 2021

It has been well over four weeks since the fall semester has started. The inevitable return to in-person classes had been a topic that evoked anxiety and uncertainty among students and faculty alike. We are living the reality of what was an abstract hypothetical: what would campus look like with the COVID-19 pandemic as its backdrop?

The desire for a robust, in-person learning experience is a well-intended but woeful miscalculation. Rising COVID-19 cases and a stubborn, nonsensical refusal to consider online classes as a valid possibility make up the current climate within the campus.

Before the start of the fall semester, President Neal Smatresk doubled down on the university’s intent to host in-person classes and events. He envisioned a near-complete return to normalcy after 18 months of remote learning, albeit with certain protocols to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Although clearly well-intended, the return to full in-person class sessions, with the delta variant already wreaking havoc, was a dubious prospect at best. At worst, it feels like dealing with COVID-19 is just part of the new norm, no matter how high the cases have become.

It’s especially alarming when aware of COVID-19’s growing impact throughout this semester. As of Sept. 17, there have been 114 active cases with direct campus impact, according to the UNT Health Alerts COVID-19 dashboard. To have cases already exceed three figures is cause for alarm knowing how much more devastating the delta variant can be. To put it into perspective: Southern Methodist University has 101 active cases and The University of Texas at Austin estimates to have 75 active cases as of Sept. 20. No matter the disparity, big or small, it’s been made abundantly clear that even a high number of cases will not deter universities from holding in-person sessions.

Elizabeth With, vice president of Student Affairs, said “social distancing in the classroom was eliminated to allow the classroom experience to resume.” She has assured that students’ health and safety are a top priority, only for the university to eliminate a key factor in minimizing COVID-19’s spread. These mixed signals come off less sincere and more disingenuous.

This is not to say that the university’s approach to this semester is a complete misfire. Steps are clearly being taken to assure everyone is in the know when a fellow student or professor has tested positive. Requiring students and faculty to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test result — or face legitimate consequence — is a perfectly valid and even admirable move considering the state government’s attitude towards anything with the word “mandate.”

Speaking of what the university can and cannot do: because the Texas government has prohibited mask mandates, the next best thing is to heavily encourage students to wear a mask, so we don’t face another shutdown. That is very much the case, with the video of Dr. Cynthia Hermann talking about classroom safety and COVID-19 protocols being played ad nauseam throughout the semester. It is a comprehensive, easy-to-understand video that rightly informs students of the various resources at their disposal. It’s a valid means to a valid end: a robust learning experience.

Of course we students crave that memorable college experience — to meet new people, make new friends, hone and learn our crafts, network and make something of our young adult lives. However, when it’s reported that professors are prohibited from teaching online when one of their students test positive for COVID-19, or that they are not allowed to send a student away despite clearly showing symptoms, one scratches their head as to what the word “safety” means to the powers that be.

We need to recognize that college boards have their arms tied when enforcing anything regarding the pandemic. In many ways, the university’s approach is respectable. Adhering to state guidelines while pushing the effectiveness of masks and vaccines deserves recognition. There is no playbook to handle this new norm, so certain decisions deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt.

However, good intentions mean nothing when one’s health is at constant risk. Students and faculty alike should have been given choices to continue online learning or go in-person should they feel comfortable. The removal of social distancing protocols genuinely boggles the mind and should be reinstated, though one feels that is wishful thinking. Though strides have been made, it’s our right as an editorial board, and more importantly as students, to critique an institution that lives to serve us. After all, it’s only our health and safety.

Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles

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North Texas Daily

North Texas Daily

The North Texas Daily is the official student newspaper of the University of North Texas, proudly serving UNT and the Denton community since 1916.

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