Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the American people are struggling to find a healthy routine. Across the country, people are recklessly jumping the gun, looking to return to pre-pandemic life while their fellow American brothers and sisters die. Bars and restaurants are packed, parties rage and crowds gather with reckless abandon, often without masks. Our immediate future seems bleak and irredeemable.
These pivotal times, while uncertain, present an opportunity to explore the potential good of humanity. In the United States, from large corporations to small businesses, people are working to mitigate the devastating impact of this virus. Any innovation, from the simplicity of curbside pickup to the advanced science of vaccine development, pushes us toward the light at the end of the tunnel. Many manufacturers — including the auto industry — have switched gears to provide our hospitals with ventilators and face shields. Non-essential workspaces have closed their doors and switched to contactless business models. Grocery delivery has minimized the number of people in public spaces. Video interface technology has made at-home work possible for countless people, saving countless lives. Nevertheless, we have not done enough. The novel coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on our country. Thousands are dying.
Yet, we press on. The University of Michigan’s leaders have concocted a plan for hybrid and in-person classes, for moving into apartments and dorm rooms and for finding public spaces to study. They have sent emails detailing plans for a “safe” return, stressing the importance of masks, social distancing and have encouraged a self-imposed quarantine before returning to campus. Our schedules have been altered, spring break is no longer and all final exams will be held online. This is certainly a great start, but it is clearly not enough.
Aside from the unassailable reality that many of the proposed rules (especially the self-imposed quarantine) are impossible to enforce, the crux of the matter is this plan’s failure to address the bigger picture. In order to not only contain this virus, but to keep our economy afloat, feed our people and provide proper social services, many still need to put themselves in harm’s way. These essential frontline workers bear the brunt of this pandemic to ensure the safety of others. If we truly cared about their well-being, we would do everything in our power to physically distance, stay home and avoid all public buildings and crowded spaces. Those with the ability to distance themselves have a responsibility to do so in order to reduce the risk to those without the same luxury. This same logic applies to returning to school in the fall. Whether it is public, private, elementary or college, those of us who do not have to go back should be leaving space for those who have no other choice but to return to school.
The basic rules and requirements in place will not necessarily stop the spread of the virus. The University’s leaders have set aside quarantined housing for sick students, implying they foresee a number of students falling ill due to their return to campus. What happens if just one student dies? Does school continue? Do they send everyone back home, exposing their families and communities? Would it have been worth it to put students back in the classroom? If the return to in-person classes results in one mistake, one accidental transmission, the sickness and possible death that follows will be the consequence of our lack of innovation.
There is an opportunity for the University to show the country what the Leaders and the Best can do when faced with an unthinkable challenge. Just as car companies have switched gears to manufacture medical equipment, the University could switch gears to provide an education to their students that is worth the tuition — sans the risk of exposure to the virus. Adapting classes for virtual instruction, educating our students about the impacts and science of this pandemic, implementing new software and project creation tools and providing sanitary spaces for faculty to virtually lead labs and demonstrations from campus is just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the coursework, the University could utilize the planned tuition increase to fund laptops and internet access for students who do not have proper resources at home, establish curbside pickup routines for University services such as dining halls, use dorms to exclusively house students that live in difficult home situations and provide ample advising resources for students to improve their access to the University’s myriad of resources. This can be accomplished while almost entirely limiting in-person interaction.
While no solution is perfect, we have the responsibility and the power to innovate, adapt and overcome this pandemic. Challenges of such magnitude will continue to cost lives, and the more we push the envelope to allow for a “normal” college experience, the farther we fall behind in our ability to lead others to a brighter, and healthier, future.
Ryan Schildcrout is a fifth-year senior in the College of Engineering and School of Music, Theatre & Dance and can be reached at email@example.com.