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Recalculating the risks

| Tuesday, August 25, 2020

As professors at Notre Dame, we have closely watched the debates over whether the University should send students home for the semester. A new danger stalks the world, and it is not clear when we will have it under control. Nevertheless, we think the right decision is to have students learn and live together in person. We recognize there are some risks, especially to faculty and staff, but we do not think they are high enough to deprive students of the opportunities we were fortunate enough to enjoy at their age. Our society has already made young people sacrifice so much during the pandemic. Based on our understanding of the risks and present situation, we think shuttering the campus indefinitely and banishing students to isolated online learning would be unjust.

Notre Dame has worked hard to prepare for the fall semester and take reasonable precautions for a safe return to campus. The temporary spike is concerning, but it does not merit the stark remedy of sending everyone home. We think that those who have voiced worries about the positive test results are focusing on the wrong numbers. This is in part because the Notre Dame dashboard focuses on positive cases alone. The more relevant metric is hospitalizations and mortality. By those measures, Notre Dame is doing extremely well and, in all likelihood, will continue to do so. According to the Indiana COVID-19 dashboard, diagnoses of people under 30 make up 29% of Indiana’s cases and 0.4% of its deaths. So far, not a single person under the age of 40 has died of COVID-19 in Saint Joseph County. Of course, not everyone at Notre Dame is low risk, and we certainly support every measure to protect the vulnerable members of our community, both within our walls and without.

For the most part, the “Here” campaign is working well, especially for students on campus and in graduate and professional schools. We are hopeful that the University’s decision to suspend in-person classes will be temporary and will incentivize students to fully appreciate that their behavior impacts the entire Notre Dame community. In order to offer a fuller view of the effectiveness of our measures to mitigate the risks posed by the virus, we join with The Observer Editorial Board and other writers in encouraging the administration to modify the COVID-19 dashboard to provide more detailed information. Specifically, we strongly encourage the administration to provide information on age (18–24, 25–34, etc.) and status (undergraduate student, graduate student, staff, faculty) and also include hospitalizations and mortality statistics (0% and 0%, respectively) so that we have a more balanced and accurate picture of the effectiveness of our efforts.

Our argument is not that COVID-19 is just another flu. It is a virus that, as far as the data indicate, is clearly dangerous to a subset of the population — but that subset is highly unlikely to include college or graduate students. Furthermore, according to a Cornell study, students are safer on campus. Closing campus due to a spike in positive cases will not protect our students, faculty and staff from more positive cases, much less hospitalizations and mortality. Sending students home will sentence them to months more of isolation — with psychological and social effects — or simply allow them to go out and about with local friends without the benefit of testing and supervision. Little surprise that one in four people aged 18-24 seriously contemplated suicide this summer, according to the CDC. This, and other less grave effects, remain invisible on COVID-19 testing charts, but are no less real.

No, we are not epidemiologists or public health experts, but we are reasonably well-educated adults who can weigh risks and benefits. We recognize that others may weigh them differently, but we know one thing for certain: We cannot eliminate all risk — no part of life is immune to it. Still, with the mitigation measures in place and reasonable improvements, along with good information on the COVID-19 dashboard, we expect that we can move forward constructively to pursue our mission in community with one another. Doing so will have the added benefit of nurturing the virtues of resilience and courage in our students, which will be so much needed for the many challenges to come.

Notre Dame should, of course, continue to accommodate students, faculty and staff who are particularly vulnerable by allowing them to work or learn remotely. And, in the case of vulnerable staff whose work cannot be done remotely, it should provide financial and health care support even if the health risks of doing their job is too great. But none of these protective measures requires sending students home. Similarly, Notre Dame should reevaluate its position in the face of results more serious than the positive testing we are seeing now, both on campus and in the South Bend community, should those more serious developments occur.

If Notre Dame shuts down, we as faculty do not stand to lose much. To be sure, being there in person for our students this semester has been a joy. But we have tenure, we can teach from our living rooms and any budget cuts will at most require a little personal belt-tightening. The students and staff, however, have much more at stake. The economic consequences of closing campus until we have a vaccine could jeopardize the job security and financial stability of many of our staff. And by sending students back home, we risk that they will have an atomized, isolated educational experience that it is a poor substitute for in-person learning, discussion and personal formation. One cannot experience a dorm mass, ramble the quad in deep discussion, develop new friendships or march for a cause while on Zoom.

Assessing the proper response to this new pandemic is not easy, but we think our society’s approach has unfairly discounted the costs we are imposing on the young and those who do not have the luxury of working from home. In that respect, Notre Dame’s decision to reopen with sensible precautions was admirable, courageous and reflects a reasonable balancing of the risks. As of now, we have no reason to believe that decision was wrong and until we do, we encourage the University administration to honor its commitment to the students. As long as we can, we will be there — in person — because we love being here and we believe we owe it to our students and the University community.


Roger P. Alford

professor of law

Susan D. Collins

associate professor of political science

Kirk Doran

associate professor of economics

Francesca Murphy

professor of theology

Jeffrey A. Pojanowski

professor of law

Aug. 22

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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