Returning to campus. Safely?

Damon Kiesow
5 min readAug 17, 2020
The view from my office of Jesse Hall. Mizzou is gorgeous.

I am returning to campus on Monday for the first time in a while.

It has been 160 days since I last saw an actual student in person. It has been 95 days since I last saw my office, overlooking a grassy park in a liminal space between campus and downtown.

It feels like years, and I desperately miss being in a classroom, or more accurately the enjoyment of working with students at something more than the transactional distance afforded by our rushed spring transition to Zoom.

I intend to enjoy the next week or two because it is both a bad idea for us to return to campus and I don’t expect to be there long.

It is not my intent to be aimlessly cynical or accusative. I am just an observer of the “return to school” decision-making process, not an administrator responsible for balancing dozens of imperfect options and constituencies. Neither am I a scientist or a public health expert of any kind. They and we are all trying to cope with a tragic and insoluble problem. But I am a student of how we as a society launder bad decisions or outright mistruths through the machinery of organizational bureaucracy. And I have been both a victim and perpetrator of said laundering in the past, as many of us are.

Importantly, there are rarely comic book villains involved in making bad organizational decisions. Current national politics notwithstanding, every level of a dysfunctional system is both responsible and blameless to varying degrees. Very often the blame is literally baked into the system.

As faculty, we work within the general constraints set forth by administrators. Those administrators work within boundaries of rules and requests sent down by chancellors and presidents who must respond to the directives, goals and budgets approved by a board of trustees, governor and legislature. And at each point in that chain decisions are being made based on incomplete information, untested science, dynamically changing conditions and conflicting goals. Which is to say, it is a human process.

All of this makes it possible to evenly allocate responsibility for bad decisions and hold no one accountable. To some extent the risks we are about to undertake rely on that principle. “It did not go well, but everyone tried to do the right thing,” the op-eds and legal briefs will claim.

Which of course is reductionist. It is always up to individuals, but especially leaders, to do the right thing regardless of the system. Unfortunately, in the past two weeks, schools and universities around the country have begun to reopen regardless of the lack of any scientific evidence in favor.

To be fair, in May most everyone “planned” to reopen schools in the fall. But week after week we have seen those plans change or be reversed. USC, Princeton and Harvard were among the first universities to announce a “mostly online” fall semester. But far too many are still making the attempt, with those unfortunate enough to have early calendars, including UNC, and the entire state of Georgia serving as big red flashing lights of warning.

I don’t have a great theory of organizational psychology to explain the divergent approaches we are seeing. We can argue red state vs blue state, or purely financial pressures. But facts are still facts, no?

No. Because the facts in March are different from the facts in August. And we are seeing a lot of policies that seem to based on what we believed in March. I can’t ascribe motive but it is easy to imagine how internal and external expectations calcified around the more optimistic attitudes of the spring, causing errors of motivated reasoning to creep in.

Our basic understanding of this virus has changed dramatically since March. But our bureaucratic decision-making has often not kept up. And those “facts” we knew earlier are now better classified as “myths,” some with dire consequences.

MYTH: Masks don’t work. This was a huge public health messaging error in the early days and is still doing damage. Partially because it was one of the first things many people learned about the virus, but also because it has been hijacked by bad actors for political purposes. Masks work, wear a mask.

MYTH: You can only catch the virus from someone with symptoms. I am not sure when this myth was busted, but it was early in the spring. And despite the scientific consensus too many reopening plans depend on testing the population AFTER symptoms occur. The CDC believes asymptomatic people, some of whom may never realize they were sick, can and do transmit the virus. Wear a mask.

MYTH: Cleaning surfaces and not touching your face is enough to avoid most risk. Transmission via surface contamination is still a worry, but many remediation plans lean heavily on social distancing and hand washing or the use of face shields, and not enough on the need for ventilation and air quality. Wear a mask. (And not one with a valve which bizarrely the CDC did not note as a concern until last week.)

New York Times school reopening data visualization.
New York Times school reopening data visualization.

MYTH: Kids don’t catch COVID or don’t die from it. This seems like the worst possible case of magical thinking. The debate is ongoing, but kids do catch COVID and they can pass it on to others. Direct evidence of this risk has been coming in since summer camp in July and has been accelerating as primary and secondary schools have restarted this month.

The New York Times published a data project focused on safe school reopening last week, the picture was not good.

Students are only one part of a school population. Faculty, staff, administrators, service providers and families are all impacted. And the COVID-19 cases connected to schools is already growing daily.

It is all but inevitable that most schools in the country will end up reverting to all or mostly-online instruction within weeks. It is inevitable because the country does not have the virus under control. And when the move online comes at colleges, we will blame students. They had parties, went to bars, didn’t wear masks.

But who let tens of thousands of them return to large and small towns from states where the virus is running rampant. Who dithered on mask mandates, or still eschews them. Who let the bars open? Who let the dorms open? Why?

See you all on Zoom.

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Damon Kiesow

Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing @mujschool. Formerly Director of Product @McClatchy Also: @BostonGlobe, @Poynter, @AOL, M.S. HFID @bentleyu