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US university leaders defend reopening campuses as virus spreads

Leading US university presidents have challenged criticisms after reopening campuses led to an upsurge in cases of Covid-19.

They see justification in the limited nature of the outbreaks, which they say are quickly addressed and controlled.

The presidents also said that critics were paying insufficient attention to the majority of students who wanted their online classes within a campus experience, for reasons that include their mental health and a need for quiet places with reliable internet connections.

Most US campuses reopened at the start of September. More than 100 institutions have been reported at more than 100 Covid-19 cases, while Illinois State University, the University of South Carolina and the University of Alabama have reached over 1,000.

Georges Benjamin, Executive Director of the American Public Health Association, said in June: “We should assume for planning purposes that there will be people on campus with Covid-19 infections, regardless of what precautions are taken.”

A number of institutions have already withdrawn in-person teaching as a result. Many campuses have newly dedicated “quarantine dorms” for students who have tested positive, with many also issuing fines and begun to suspend students who break Covid rules.

It was never going to be perfect, but it was the right move to do, with all the safeguards. We’re weathering the storm

– President of Robert Morris University
 

At an annual media forum arranged by Arizona State University (ASU), a group of 11 university presidents said that coverage of institutions failed to capture the degree to which cases had been tackled.

David Leebron, president of Rice University in Houston, Texas, said: “I don’t think the coverage by the media has been accurate or helpful.”

Michael Crow, ASU president, also described aggressive university efforts to close down bars in the Phoenix area that violated social distancing rules.

The group highlighted the social value of reopening campuses, particularly as rates of anxiety, depression, suicidality, and psychosis have risen by as much as 400% since the pandemic reached its heights in Spring.

Marlene Tromp, president of Idaho’s Boise State University, said: “This is because our students really wanted the opportunity to connect, to engage. We wrenched them out of the environment where they were beginning to build their more adult lives.”

Several of the presidents at the ASU event did acknowledge, however, that reopening campuses remained a tough call.

Christopher Howard, president of Pennsylvania’s Robert Morris University, said: “It was never going to be perfect, but it was the right move to do, with all the safeguards. We’re weathering the storm.”

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