Nature puts an uncomfortable twist on our current situation: Millions of students are returning to US universities in a vast unplanned pandemic experiment. Gosh, I guess I am like a big flask of hot agar, fresh out of the autoclave and getting poured into petri dishes for the students to contaminate. Let’s see what grows, OK?
Bringing so many university students to crowded campuses is uniquely risky in the United States, which has seen the largest number of deaths to COVID-19 of any country and has active community transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the pandemic. Other large countries with surging infection rates, such as India and Brazil, are not opening up campuses to the same degree.
According to the College Crisis Initiative, a research project at Davidson College in North Carolina, more than 1,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States will bring students back to campus in some form, with 45 operating “fully in person”, another 446 as “primarily in person”, and nearly 600 offering various combinations of online and in-person classes as of 7 August. But plans change daily, with many universities that boldly planned to hold in-person classes deciding at the last minute to switch to virtual versions.
Yay! We get to bear the brunt of American exceptionalism this time around! My university is one of the 600. Yesterday I had my first student write to me to say they won’t be able to attend our in-person lab because they’ve been exposed and are in a two-week quarantine period. I’m glad they’re responsible about it all, but what am I going to do if (when) more students drop out of the lab? I’m definitely not going to penalize anyone for not infecting me, but all of the plans in our great unplanned pandemic experiment are going to crumble fast.