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In our opinion: Colleges just reopened. Keeping them open is up to the students

SHARE In our opinion: Colleges just reopened. Keeping them open is up to the students

A sign lets students and visitors know masks are mandatory in the University of Utah Campus Store in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. The U. began its fall semester on Monday.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Several of Utah’s colleges and universities began fall classes in the past week, with others to follow in the coming days. Like many schools across the country, Utah’s universities have gone to the extreme in COVID-19 precautions — mandating masks, enforcing social distancing and prioritizing sanitation and cleanliness on campus.

Taking necessary precautions on campus is essential. But universities around the country are learning that regulating student safety off-campus is a whole different ball game — and many are striking out.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pivoted to digital classes after 31% of tested students were positive. Notre Dame went online after averaging 54 new cases per day. Michigan State, Dayton and a handful of others followed suit, either for the rest of the semester or for a few weeks.

It should remind universities of a harrowing reality: All the on-campus preparations possible can be undone in a moment by off-campus carelessness. Or, as New York Times writers Shawn Shawn Hubler and Anemona Hartocollis bluntly wrote, “On-campus restrictions are being undermined by off-campus partying.”

Utah’s colleges and universities have placed a large amount of trust in their students by reopening this fall — because, after all, it’s what the students wanted. Nearly half (45%) of respondents to a McKinsey survey of college students in April said they would strongly consider transferring if their schools announced an online-only fall semester. Universities took notice.

Now, those schools, who have put months of planning and preparation into campus environments that will be as safe as reasonably possible, are welcoming students back. Mutual effort is essential. Universities must be vigilant in enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing, providing adequate testing and utilizing contact tracing and other tools. Students must ensure that the carefulness of campus doesn’t surrender to the casualness of typical college life.

For some, it already has. Notre Dame said that 70% of its positive cases came from students who attended large off-campus parties or came in contact with an attendee. Other universities saw similar connections. Utah’s college and university administrators are keeping a close pulse on what’s going on nationwide, and by still planning on an in-person semester, they signal confidence and trust in their student bodies’ decisions.

One of the purposes of modern universities, in tandem with providing an education and preparing for the workforce, is helping young people transition from adolescence to adulthood. In addition to the typical life skills, today’s COVID-19-era college students are unwittingly receiving the education of a lifetime in personal responsibility, community and accountability. 

Universities are learning, too. COVID-19 wasn’t the first crisis to disrupt higher education, nor will it be the last. Schools are finding ways to reinvent and reform — and the process will surely continue far beyond this fall.

For now, the most pressing issue is safety and making fall semester work for everyone. Utah’s institutions are proactive in warning of the consequences of carelessness. BYU’s social media pages, for instance, made that clear Tuesday, highlighting campus closures at other universities: “These must serve as cautionary tales for our BYU community. We must learn from their examples.”

Learning is an irreplaceable part of any university, but this semester it seems the most important lesson won’t come from a textbook.