Universities prepare to blame students for COVID-19 outbreaks

By Trévon Austin
1 August 2020

As in-person classes resume in the fall, the uncoordinated and insufficient response of administrators poses a serious risk of a further spread of COVID-19. Indeed, the American ruling class is fully aware of the inevitability of a surge in cases if schools are reopened. In light of this, colleges and universities are prepared to blame the spread of the coronavirus on students.

Tulane University dean of students Erica Woodley sent out a scornful email July 7, after a number of students partied on the July 4 weekend. Woodley chided students for “disrespectful, selfish and dangerous” behavior and posed the question “[d]o you really want to be the reason that Tulane and New Orleans have to shut down again?” In bold and all caps, Woodley threatened students with suspension or expulsion if they hosted gatherings with 15 or more students.

Woodley’s email is a verbal expression of a sentiment shared by university officials across the US. Authorities admonished students for not following social distancing measures in the spring and summer. A recent survey of 70 universities found that 57 percent were considering updating their code of conduct, or already had done so, to enforce social distancing guidelines. Failure to comply will lead to severe disciplinary action.

Images on social media of youth partying with a disregard for social distancing have spawned a narrative that young people are responsible for the recent surge in infections. Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, said officials did not anticipate the rise in infections among those aged between 18 and 35. Birx suggested that youth, who were “so good and so disciplined through March and April,” threw caution to the wind after seeing their friends having fun.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, complained that those under the age of 35 were “the age cohort that believes in many cases that they are invincible, and they are somehow immune from the impacts of COVID-19.” New York City’s official Twitter account posted a chart showing infection rates increasing among young people. The tweet pointed to millennials and Generation X, telling the age groups to “do better.”

Despite the irresponsibility of some youth, and the role risky celebrations played in spreading the virus, such criticisms are founded on a lie. The unbridled spread of COVID-19 is not the fault of a relatively small number of students but is a direct consequence of the criminal response of the American ruling class.

The policy of the American government during the pandemic has been entirely oriented to the whims of the financial and corporate elite. After implementing a brief lockdown and securing a multi-trillion-dollar handout for the wealthy, states and the federal government prematurely reopened the economy to ensure the extraction of profit from the working class could continue unabated.

In fact, the rising infection rate among young people is directly linked to this policy. Rather than social gatherings, the trend is explained by the substantial number of students and youth employed in jobs that have been deemed “essential” or reopened widely after lockdown measures expired.

In retail, one of the first industries to reopen, approximately 56 percent of clothing store workers are below the age of 35, as are 70 percent of workers at shoe stores and 60 percent at electronic stores. According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly two-thirds of restaurant workers are 34 or younger, and nearly half of all grocery store workers as well.

Even if one takes the parties into account, these were not simply the responsibility of the youth involved, but were encouraged and promoted by definite political and social forces. One must note the role the Trump administration, state governors and the media played in encouraging laxity; the parties hosted by youth and small protests against social distancing measures were framed as reflecting a widespread desire to “get back to normal” and utilized as justification to accelerate reopening the economy.

Furthermore, youth forgoing weeks of social isolation to enjoy human interaction is an understandable, although reckless, impulse. For many young adults, the loneliness that accompanies isolation takes a toll on their mental health. In an April survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported nearly half of people between 18 and 29 felt symptoms of anxiety or depression. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people under 35, suggesting a serious mental health crisis among younger layers.

Rather than acknowledging the miserable response of the government, universities are hoping the personal responsibility of students will be sufficient enough to contain outbreaks on campuses. Students are being set up to take the blame when outbreaks do occur and schools are forced to shut down. It should go without saying that the task of keeping campuses safe is not primarily, let alone solely, the responsibility of students.

Containing the coronavirus in a campus setting is a tall order. According to a study by Harvard and Yale researchers, controlling the virus would require all students to be tested every two to three days, not to mention the need for intense contact tracing. Approximately 20 million students attended colleges and universities in 2019. Currently, the testing capacity in the United States is nowhere near the level to keep up with the testing required.

While insisting schooling resume in the fall, the US government has left universities to deal with the challenges of opening during a pandemic. The CDC failed to recommend entry testing of all returning students, faculty, and staff. The Trump administration asserts that “science” cannot get in the way of reopening schools, and impedes efforts to implement safe educational environments.

One can also point to financial interests behind ensuring in-person classes resume. Dormitory costs are a significant source of revenue for schools. Colleges charge students above market rates for housing as a less transparent way of augmenting revenues without formally raising tuition fees. In fact, campus housing prices have risen far more than the price of housing in the broader economy.

One 2014 study showed that from 1976 to 2013, the inflation-adjusted rate of increase in public university housing costs was about 72 percent, compared to less than 5 percent for housing in general. Many universities also require students to stay on campus up to their sophomore year.

Blaming students for the nigh inevitable surge in COVID-19 cases that will accompany reopening schools only serves to mask the recklessness of the decision. A recent study found that between 70 and 80 percent of infected individuals aged 20 to 35 are asymptomatic. This exposes the danger of reopening schools. The virus could spread through student populations without many being aware they carry the virus.

Students must oppose the drive to rush back to school under grossly unsafe conditions. The fight to ensure the safety of students, faculty, and staff is intimately linked with the struggle against the capitalist system, which has elevated the right to profit above the right to life. The International Youth and Students for Social Equality urges students to join the fight for socialism.