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Should I stay or should I go? Give students the choice to stay home and study online

| Friday, August 14, 2020

After seeing Crystal Cipriani-Hoch — the mother of junior Miguel Hoch and senior Elizabeth Hoch — break down in tears on NBC Nightly News over the fact that her Notre Dame students have been forced to take leaves of absence during the ongoing pandemic, I am moved to make a public plea on behalf of this family and college students nationwide. First, Notre Dame should reverse its decision to deny Miguel and Elizabeth Hoch medical accommodations to study at home and online this fall. Secondly, all colleges and universities in the United States should give their students the choice to study online, without penalty, until a proven vaccine for the novel coronavirus is widely available in our country.

Miguel and Elizabeth Hoch bravely voiced in national news media their serious, long-term concerns about the lives and health of their family if they were forced to return to campus rather than maintain quarantine within their epidemiologically high-risk family and community in Texas. “What if they brought the virus with them to campus?” they rightly worried. “And what if they brought it back from campus with them in November?” they reasonably asked. What, then, if they unwittingly infected family members who have special vulnerabilities to the virus and its worst effects? Like most Americans, they have no place to quarantine or self-isolate but in their own home. This puts the whole household at risk for contracting a potentially lethal disease if the family’s quarantine must be broken, as we have tragically seen over and over again, with over 160,000 Americans dead from the disease of COVID-19 this year.

In Daniel Defoe’s 1722 classic of epidemic literature, “A Journal of the Plague Year,” the narrator — based on Defoe’s uncle who survived the last great visitation of the bubonic plague to London in 1665 — faces the stark dilemma: “Should I stay or should I go?” The narrator courageously chooses to remain in the city of London despite the chance to leave for the country in the north of England to live with his sister in seemingly greater safety from the “Sickenesse.” Writing in the wake of the resurgence of the plague in France in 1720, Defoe’s most important ethical and political insight — which the Hoch family wisely shares — is that it is always the right decision to stay where you are and maintain quarantine if a virulent and lethal epidemic is raging around you. Otherwise, you risk contracting and transmitting the pathogen wherever you go.

Unfortunately, Miguel and Elizabeth Hoch were both forced to take leaves of absence this fall, which means they might not graduate with their classes on schedule.

Crystal Cipriani-Hoch has expressed valid concerns about the well-being and academic progress of all students, like her college-aged children, who have been forced to take academic leaves rather than allowed to study online this fall. What happens if Notre Dame and other campuses go online in a few weeks, just like they did in March? Will these students, denied the chance to study online now, be given the chance to study online then? How can they “catch up” with their peers, however, if they are officially denied access to online courses during the first critical weeks of the academic year?

I call upon academic leaders at Notre Dame and other American institutions of higher education to reverse two policy decisions, as a matter of social justice and public health during the pandemic year that has beset everyone with hard choices and real dangers. Think of it as a debt jubilee of sorts, whereby we relieve young people of unfair burdens that they should not or cannot bear:

1. All college students previously denied accommodations to study online should be granted them and enabled to take a full schedule of online courses to make academic progress toward their degrees as members in good standing within the University community. Ideally, they should receive some discount on tuition to compensate for the trouble they have already endured, as well as free access to technology (such as iPads or WiFi connections) to support their online studies.

2. All college students who have been compelled to take leaves of absence during the pandemic should be given the option to re-enroll and study online instead, so that, if they prefer, they can continue to make academic progress toward their degrees and timely graduations.

It’s high time for colleges and universities, beginning with Notre Dame, to do better for those vulnerable to the coronavirus during our pandemic year of 2020. Students should not be penalized for making the choice to stay at home to protect the health and lives of themselves, their families and their wider communities during the international public health crisis of COVID-19.

Eileen Hunt Botting

Professor of political science

Aug. 11

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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