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Re-return to campus — but to what end?

Courtesy of Rice University CS Department

By Moshe Vardi     12/9/20 11:05pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors. 

The first wave of COVID-19 erupted in the U.S. in early 2020. Rice responded quickly: During March 9-15, classes for the week preceding Spring Break were canceled, students were instructed not to return to campus after Spring Break, and instruction after Spring Break was made fully remote. This quick reaction to the pandemic was typical of many organizations and localities all around the country, as it became clear that social distancing was then the only effective way to slow down the spread of the disease. This seems to have worked and, by early May, the first wave was somewhat subsiding. The Rice administration then tasked the Academic Restart Committee with the mission of “Return to Rice.” 

But when President David Leebron formally announced on July 17 the plans to return to campus in the fall of 2020, the second wave of COVID-19 was already raging. Against the backdrop of an alarming rise in the numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, President Leebron justified the decision by saying that it would “sustain our mission, and indeed achieve new heights,” and that “we aim to provide the best educational and collegiate experience we can for students who come to our campus.” I find such statements to be weak generalities rather than a compelling rationale. In fact, I never heard the Rice administration respond explicitly to serious questions about the return-to-campus plans raised by my colleagues, Professors Helena Michie and Kyriacos Zygourakis, and by myself. For example, a July 28 message from the President and the Provost, Reginald DesRoches, talked about “fulfilling our mission as a premier institution of higher education and research,” with no specifics of risk and benefits. Prior to the start of the semester, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution expressing deep disappointment regarding pressure applied to faculty and staff to return to campus.

The measures to reduce population density on campus, limit in-person class attendance, and run an effective COVID-19 testing program on campus, combined with responsible behavior by Rice students, enabled Rice to avoid major outbreaks of COVID-19 on Campus, unlike many other colleges. According to the New York Times college coronavirus tracker, by Nov. 18, Rice had 175 cases of COVID-19. But it is important to put this in the overall context of the pandemic; when the fall semester restarted in late August 2020, the second wave of COVID-19 had significantly subsided. In fact, based on the New York Times’ data, Rice’s incidence rate per capita of COVID-19 (cases divided by population), roughly 1.75 percent — while quite lower than that of our county, Harris county, roughly 4 percent — is similar to that of Rice’s zip code, 77005, which is roughly at 1.7 percent.

While the goal of avoiding COVID-19 outbreaks on campus was achieved, the goal of providing a “robust intellectual and social environment” for the fall semester, as wished by President Leebron in his July 17 letter, was not accomplished. As Professor Michie wrote in July, “when we talk about a ‘return’ to campus, we must be clear that it is not in any sense a return.” As the semester unfolded, it became clear that dual-mode instruction is not perceived to be any better than fully-remote instruction, being essentially remote teaching in the classroom. This sentiment was, in fact, the prevailing one among both faculty and undergraduate students in surveys run by Rice’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness, and has also been expressed at other colleges. In fact, my observation is that Rice students have been voting with their feet; in my bi-weekly visits to campus, I have seen attendance in different classrooms decline from visit to visit. By early November, classrooms I visited during class hours were typically empty. The Rice campus I saw on my visits was practically a ghost town, fulfilling my August prediction that “it is an illusion to think that we can provide a robust in-person intellectual and social environment on campus under COVID-19.”

Even though the semester went well at Rice in terms of COVID-19 cases, we do not have any guarantees that next semester will be the same, especially since the pandemic seems to be getting worse across the country. Since early November the third wave of the pandemic has been rising in the U.S., driven in certain places, some argue, to a non-negligible degree, by the (regrettable in my opinion) decision of many colleges and universities to return to campus. This third wave is dwarfing the second wave, and Rice has also been impacted. The Rice Crisis Management Team reported 15 positive tests and a positivity rate of 0.31 percent from Nov. 3 through Nov. 9, the highest weekly positivity rate since the start of the semester. By Dec. 8, the weekly positivity rate climbed to 0.35 percent. Margarita Rodriguez, a Rice staff member, passed away due to COVID-19 complications on Oct. 30, though it is not known if the infection occurred on the Rice campus. Rice, as well as most other colleges and universities around the country, allowed its students to return home for Thanksgiving, a wave of air travel that arguably further fueled the third wave of the pandemic. 

Looking towards the near future, the situation is grim. We can expect the next few months of the COVID-19 pandemic to be among “the most difficult in the public health history of this nation,” according to Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This warning was issued even though we can expect more vigorous federal leadership of the pandemic after the Jan. 20, 2021 inauguration of President Biden, including aggressive vaccination plans. In this context, I was rather dismayed to receive the notice in November that “ARC has recommended to the administration that the maximum in-person class meeting size for the Spring increase from 25 to 40, and the administration has accepted this recommendation.” The dubious rationale offered for this decision was that “both students and faculty expressed a desire for more in-person class opportunities.”

As the surveys clearly show, both faculty and students have a strong preference for fully in-person instruction, but not for dual-mode instruction. Thus, the assertion about “a desire for more in-person class opportunities” in the context of increasing maximum in-person class meeting size for the Spring increase from 25 to 40 is rather misleading, since such larger classes would surely be taught in a dual mode.

I stand by my judgment from August that the Rice administration's decision to return to campus in the fall risked health and life for questionable educational benefit. But just because we were lucky does not mean we were smart; we dodged a bullet in the fall, but we may not dodge it again in the spring. The decision to return to campus in the spring and increase population density on campus, in view of the raging pandemic and the manifestly dubious educational value of dual-mode delivery, simply cannot be justified. It is worth remembering the words from last March of the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Stanford: “Taking difficult steps now, for the public good, will mean getting back to normal in the future with fewer friends and colleagues to mourn.”

Moshe Y. Vardi is a University Professor and the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor of Computational Engineering.

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