In a whirlwind few days, Northeastern and many other colleges across the country moved to remote, online learning in the wake of the growing COVID-19 outbreak. While universities like Harvard and Tufts forced students to leave campus, Northeastern took a more flexible approach, leaving students to decide whether to leave university housing. But, Northeastern’s announcements in response to the outbreak were vague and confusing and this flexibility left students with the burden of answering difficult questions about their residency and campus activity.
Northeastern’s lack of detail came in their first announcement, where it did not quantify the size of banned “large gatherings” or detail what qualifies as “continuing campus activity,” leaving students confused. Of particular concern is that the administration has not expressly encouraged students who can leave university housing to go, which is the public health practice the majority of area universities are following. Northeastern simply left students this choice without giving any requisite public health background information, making it difficult for students to decide what is right to do. I implore Northeastern to make a statement encouraging students with the ability to leave university housing to do so.
Here are some answers: If you are a Northeastern student living in on-campus housing and you have the ability to leave campus, you should. This is an incredibly difficult and complex decision. For one, if you have elderly or immunocompromised persons living at home or if it is difficult for you to travel, it may not be possible for you to return home. So, the decision ultimately rests on logistical, personal safety and public health reasoning. From a public health standpoint, it is imperative to leave crowded public spaces like university dorms in order to effectively social distance and flatten the outbreak curve, not just for your own safety but for that of the immunocompromised in our community.
It is difficult to see the broader picture for why leaving congregated areas like dorms is important when most, a purported 80 percent, of COVID-19 cases present with mild symptoms. The answer is that it’s not a matter of reducing cases, but of slowing the spread of disease to flatten the outbreak curve so that our healthcare system can manage the outbreak. This is done in many ways, but key among them is social distancing.
Social distancing is the limiting of large groups of people congregating in order to minimize the spread of highly contagious illness. In order to treat patients who struggle with the illness or its complications, hospitals will need proper staffing, enough bed space, enough ventilators and many other contingent supplies that depend on there being a manageable caseload. If we do not reduce the caseload through social distancing, the outbreak could increase at a pace that would overburden our healthcare system and may ultimately end with people dying preventable deaths because the hospital simply does not have the supplies or the staff to care for them.
Some experts estimate that up to 70 percent of U.S. adults will become infected with COVID-19, depending on its case fatality rate and the effectiveness of the U.S. public health response. From a logistical standpoint, as college-aged siblings return from abroad and as more become infected, the people who could help move out dorm belongings when it could be more pertinent to do so may be quarantined or sick and unable to help.
Staying on campus also means you have less control over your living space. Northeastern will have control over how the building functions and what campus resources will be offered. In-person classes are not scheduled to resume, and clubs meetings and campus gatherings are now virtual so you will not lose university opportunities by leaving. It may be more difficult to leave campus housing the longer that you wait to leave as resources dwindle in places like nearby grocery stores.
Despite its lack of clarity, Northeastern has made many good decisions, including pre-emptively moving classes online, being willing to help students abroad return home and keeping facilities open for students who need to stay on campus. It is remarkable that Northeastern is giving flexibility to stay in campus housing for students on co-op who still need to report to work and for students who are otherwise unable to leave.
However, according to the March 12 university update, Northeastern is “not asking students in Northeastern residence halls to move out. While students may elect to do so, we are committed to maintaining continuity of campus life for those who elect to stay.”
Northeastern is also not currently offering pro-ration, which are housing refunds for the time that students are not living in their housing, for the students who choose to leave university housing on the basis that students are electing to leave, not being asked to. Many area colleges who are asking students to leave are offering pro-ration, including Amherst College, Harvard University and Tufts University. However, this financially incentivizes students to stay in the dorms to make the most of their housing payment. This is an unfair and compromising position.
Unlike most area universities, Northeastern did not give an end date for the online class period in its announcement, leaving clubs and professors scrambling to make plans for a potential return to in-person classes, only to have this decision clarified as through the semester, yesterday morning.
Northeastern also announced that the move to online classes would start Thursday around noon on Wednesday while in-person classes were in-session. While university professors were told to prepare for remote instruction in advance, Northeastern students who had just returned from their spring break were asked to begin online instruction the morning immediately after this announcement. This gave no time for students to contact their support system, do thoughtful research about their options and make plans to stay or leave before online classes began.
Northeastern should have more thoughtfully considered the position it put its students in and canceled classes on March 12 or 13 to give students time to adjust to the decision as universities like Boston College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did.
Your health and safety and a successful community response to this outbreak are ultimately paramount. For more public health background information, visit the constantly updated website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this website detailing the epidemiology behind flattening the curve and sources like Vox and the New York Times (which removed its paywall for COVID-19 coverage), who are publishing pieces with useful graphics and scientific background. If you are still struggling with your personal decisions, reach out to We Care for advice and assistance.
Katie McCreedy is a third-year health science major.