I don’t know that I like being on the other side of the microscope

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.


  1. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    I understood the US to be a litigious society. How the hell is this not a class action lawer’s wet dream?

  2. kenbakermn says

    Republicans have been trying to eradicate education for decades. Looks like they may finally have found a way to do it.

  3. chris61 says

    I’m still trying to figure out how to conduct group discussions of scientific papers via zoom. But at least it’s not a virtual lab. Don’t envy you virtual labs at all.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    Apilimod and vacuolin-1 are drugs that show early promise against the virus- unforunately the approval proocess , production and distribution will come too late for this year.

  5. marcoli says

    All around me campuses are announcing they are going fully online, some with special exceptions like med school campuses. The wife and I have a bet for when the university that we work at closes. I am predicting they will announce closure this Friday. Our youth, non-existent god bless ’em, partayed, and that only speeds up the closures.

  6. numerobis says

    FossilFishy: the GOP is desperate to ban lawsuits over COVID, is how there might not be lawsuits.

  7. bcwebb says

    PZ, just think of yourself as one of those flies wrapped and wiggling in webbing that the spider-covid is saving for later. — Actually I am really sorry for you and every teacher caught that way. Can you do any of the lab’s outdoors while the weather is OK?

  8. numerobis says

    birgerjohansson: there’s lots of drugs that show promise. Only two so far have shown actual benefit, and only moderate benefit at that. Whereas containment can reduce illness by orders of magnitude.

  9. raven says

    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.

    It’s worse than that.
    A lot of universities opened up, did some testing, and discovered they were in the midst of a rapidly expanding Covid-19 virus cluster of cases.
    It only took a week for the virus to start circulating among the students.

    So how is the testing going at UM, Morris?
    You are testing the students as they come back, aren’t you?
    If not, you should be and have a plan in place for when the first positives come back.

  10. raven says

    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.

    Do what you can and try not to get anyone killed, including yourself.

    Death is a permanent solution to a temporary problem here.
    Remember HIV/AIDS? Polio? TB?
    Someday in the future, we will manage to control the Covid-19 pandemic.
    It’s just not clear right now how and when.

  11. unclefrogy says

    I bless my fate that has brought me to a place were I have some choice to be engaged or not and the security to make it tolerable.
    dot not take any chance you do not personally feel is OK.
    We are our own safetey inspector and union steward in the end, regardless what the boss says.
    uncle frogy

  12. Craig says

    My husband is able to work remotely in his higher education job and has informed his supervisor that he’ll be doing so. We give it a maximum of three weeks after the students return before his institution of higher learning shuts down again.

  13. prfesser says

    I feel for you, PZ, and for all my (former) colleagues. I was a bit worried when I retired early, two years ago, as my pension isn’t all that great. But at least I don’t have to conduct chemistry classes online, or try to prepare virtual labs (which usually are semi-useless at best).

    Just had a horrible thought. Med schools and teaching hospitals, by their nature, must have a lot of in-person contact. I wonder how many would-be doctors (and current doctors) will die over the next year or so as a result of President Tweety’s attempt to secure a dictatorship.

  14. Rich Woods says

    I’m reminded of the warning posters which would appear at my (former) educational institution during Fresher’s Week every September for decades, informing students of the signs, symptoms and risks of serious illnesses such as meningitis. We know that every new cohort of students mixing together for the first time visibly raises the incidence of infections, minor and major. Even setting aside the inevitable incidences of chlamydia, etc, amongst students taking advantage of being away from home for the first time, staff are also used to getting a cold or cough for a few days at times like this. How on earth can anyone doubt that, even with the best social-distancing plans and mask requirements, there will not be an increase in Covid-19 infections in universities at the start of term? And if there’s an increase in incidence at a university then there will be an increase in incidence in the local community shortly thereafter.