This holiday season, between December 24 and December 31, airlines cancelled 15,000 flights nationwide. In New York City, Broadway shows are being cancelled left and right, dozens of restaurants are closing their doors and the recently elected mayor, Eric Adams, even cancelled his inauguration gala. Though not as severe, this soft lockdown feels reminiscent of the hard lockdown in March 2020.
As a student, there is one parallel course of action that stands out the most. Schools gave students a two-week “break” in early 2020 which turned into months of virtual instruction. I fear a similar fate for my education now that many universities are delaying the date that students will come back to campus, and opting instead for two weeks of online learning. Understandably, a two week break may be terrifying to the student — of any level — who has had years of their experience ripped away from them. But we must be rational, and try our best to understand the damage that an unmitigated Omicron wave could do to our community.
I do not want school to go back online. After losing a year and a half of my high school experience to virtual learning, I can’t imagine missing anything more. The loss of my last year of high school sports, the experience of finally being a senior and having time with my friends before we all went our separate ways has made me grateful for the college life I have experienced thus far. As a result, I am less willing to let it go. However, as colleges across the country — both private and public — are starting their spring semesters online, my feelings have become more ambivalent. While I have a strong desire to go back, the decision to return to in-person classes is not that simple.
As a New Yorker, I have seen how Omicron has ravaged the city. On walks to the nearby coffee cart for my daily fix of iced coffee, I am surrounded by COVID testing lines that have taken over every other block. Masks are back to being glued on faces, as no one dares to pull them down, even outside. Even my hometown friends, who I may not see again for months, have taken to self-isolating for fear of contracting the virus. After only two weeks of break, I am already aware of the dangers that lie in densely populated areas and what is at stake if the situation is not handled properly. As such, I fear what is to come of the University of Michigan and its population of over 48,000 students and 29,000 employees.
With students returning from all corners of the country, and some from across the globe, the risks of rapid spread are high. Though there will be some who remain cautious, there will be many who won’t; whether it be continuing nightly endeavors at packed fraternities or simple carelessness like forgetting to wear a mask in public places, chances are high that we will be seeing a surge of Omicron cases on campus. If it really does come to that, we may be looking at an entire semester of virtual learning. Considering this, I would gladly delay the gratification of fully in person classes if it means we will minimize the amount of time that we will be forced online.
So, if the spread of Omicron is this serious and many colleges have already shut down for a week or two, why haven’t we? Without the notifications that used to inform us of positive COVID cases in classrooms, what are we left with? The requirement that students and faculty receive booster shots, the easily avoidable ResponsiBlue screening checks along with the University’s arguably lackluster contact tracing program and isolation policies will likely be hard-pressed to protect our campus community from COVID-19. As such, it is the University’s responsibility to do more.
Possible solutions include mandating regular COVID testing — even for fully vaccinated students on campus — as is the norm at several peer colleges and universities across the country. The University should also consider resuming communication about positive cases across campus, or even temporarily moving lectures online while keeping discussion sections in-person. The best course of action would have been to delay the start of in-person classes. But we should be cognizant of the fact there are scores of other actions outside of a full virtual pivot that University officials could take to make campus a safer place. Unfortunately, so far the University has adopted worryingly few of these common sense measures, measures which could hopefully maximize the amount of in person learning available this term.
Palak Srivastava is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.