On the Responsibility of Universities to their Students

Emily Oster in The Atlantic:

Many universities have announced a pivot to remote learning for at least part of January, among them UCLA, Columbia, Duke, Yale, Stanford, and Michigan State. The list goes on.

This move—in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant—feels like a return to March 2020, when virtually all U.S. universities closed for in-person learning, sending students home for spring break and telling them not to come back. At that point, keeping students away from campus was reasonable. Now, however, this decision is a mistake. It reflects an outmoded level of caution. And it represents a failure of universities to protect their students’ interests.

I agree. Despite being a big fan of online education there is a big difference between online classes developed over many years with substantial funding, like MRU’s classes, and throwing professors into teaching over zoom. College is supposed to be fun. Meeting people is part of the education. Online is great but not for everything.

I would add three points to the those that Oster makes. First, this is where the students are anyway. I gave a talk at UVA recently and everyone was masked according to policy. After the the talk we went to the Corner where the bars and restaurants were packed with unmasked revelers. Mask mandates are pandemic theatre and inconsistent with how much of the country let alone most students are already living. Similarly, going remote is also pandemic theatre and not likely to appreciably reduce interactions in the community at-large.

Second, the elasticity of substitution. It made sense to change behavior substantially when the vaccines were coming. But the vaccines have been here for some time, they are great, they work. So get vaccinated, be thankful, and get back to life.

Finally these arguments apply with at least as much strength if not more to the public schools. Furthermore, we have spent billions of dollars on pandemic preparations for the public schools. Why did we spend that money if not to open the schools?



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