I have spent most of my life in school. From preschool, elementary, middle, high school, and college to high school once again (this time as a teacher) to full-time graduate school where I now live in a first-year residence, nearly every waking year of my life has been spent in a school building. Despite my comfort and familiarity with being in school, I believe returning to in-person learning at this time is immoral.
In March, when schools closed, there were only a few thousand reported cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States. Now, months later, just as some schools have begun welcoming students back into their buildings, the United States still reports over 50,000 new cases on some days. If it was not safe with a few thousand total cases, how is it safe with a few million total cases?
In the past few months, we have seen how quickly COVID-19 can spread, especially in places like nursing homes and prisons, where people live in close quarters and frequently congregate for meals and social gatherings. Living on a college campus is not much different in this sense. Students live in small shared rooms, share common restrooms and showers, have limited and crowded dining facilities, and attend regular gatherings (classes, clubs, bars, parties, etc.). If the virus can spread quickly in nursing homes and prisons where mobility and activities are limited, imagine how quickly the virus might spread where people are less restricted in their actions and encountering more people in outside communities.
I understand the desire to return to school. The transition to online education is a difficult one, and it is not comparable to in-person learning. Yet, online school is working, it is effective, and people are adapting. (See: Sharon Jeffcoat Bartley, and Jennifer H. Golek. “Evaluating the Cost Effectiveness of Online and Face-to-Face Instruction.” Journal of Educational Technology & Society 7, no. 4 (2004): 167-75. www.jstor.org/stable/jeductechsoci.7.4.167 and Ni, Anna Ya. “Comparing the Effectiveness of Classroom and Online Learning: Teaching Research Methods.” Journal of Public Affairs Education 19, no. 2 (2013): 199-215. www.jstor.org/stable/23608947)
Schools are much more than learning institutions. Schools are capable of teaching civility; instilling values; establishing community bonds and fostering friendships; and providing a safe environment for those who might not always have one. The value that schools provide would be hard to overstate. Schools must continue to be mission-driven institutions that create welcoming environments for all people to grow, develop lasting relationships, and have a passion for learning.
By opening schools during a global pandemic, institutions are unraveling the fabric of schools. It is clear that some figures in our society, including those who run schools, are placing profits over people. By opening schools in areas where there is a clear risk to public health, institutions are contradicting their own values. By opening schools, institutions are creating unsafe working, learning, and living conditions. By opening schools, institutions are undermining their mission-driven charisms. And this includes Catholic schools.
Institutions of learning that pride themselves on “caring for the whole person” are failing to consider the safety of the whole person over the safety of their endowments. Institutions that believe in an option for the poor and vulnerable are jeopardizing the lives of the vulnerable in their communities.
For institutions that pride themselves on the quality of their liberal arts education, what philosophical or ethical system is being used to determine the decision to reopen? The greatest good for the greatest number of people? Nope, not utilitarian ethics. Is there a categorical imperative for reopening everything? Nope, not deontological ethics. If these schools cannot justify the greatest good, nor recognize a categorical imperative, how can they justify reopening schools?
For institutions that pride themselves on “community first,” what does one say when their school opens before others in the area, jeopardizing members of the school community and the local community?
For Catholic institutions that pride themselves on human dignity and respect for life, how does risking the health and safety of the students, faculty, and staff align with their understanding of Catholic Social Teaching?
As both a teacher and student, the idea of returning to on-campus learning is, in short, terrifying. For far too long, education has been placed on the national backburner. For far too long, schools have received limited resources: education budgets have been cut for other projects, teachers have worked exceptionally long hours with little compensation, and students have paid exorbitant tuition costs that never seem to stop rising. To expect students and teachers to be guinea pigs in uncharted and unsafe territory is reckless, craven, and asinine. And it shows a lack of respect for the dignity and worth of the human beings who are likely to suffer as a result.
Other options exist that do not involve bringing the entire student body to campus. Those options require creative and potentially uncomfortable solutions. However, by welcoming back the entire student body to campuses mid-pandemic, schools are clearly revealing that the only solutions they are willing to find are those that immorally put profits above people.
Bobby Nichols is a former high school theology teacher and campus minister from Louisville, Kentucky, currently pursuing a full-time Masters of Ministry and Theology from Villanova University.