Stanford should hope its COVID-19 response is graded S/NC

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At the time I’m writing this, approximately 3 of 4 Americans are being instructed to stay home. By the time this article is published, it is likely that more people will receive even more stringent instructions. For many people, these restrictions represent a shocking escalation of a crisis many expected would be contained before it ever affected the United States. Even for those who realized that the U.S. would probably not escape unscathed, the magnitude of the crisis, and the U.S.’s seeming inability to respond effectively, have been deeply concerning. Compared to the Trump administration, Stanford’s response to the pandemic has seemed relatively competent. But that’s a rather low bar. A closer look at the decisions made by Stanford’s administration reveals serious missteps and oversights. 

I had a bit of a head start on worrying about COVID-19, at least compared to many Americans. As an International Relations major, I am specializing in East and South Asia while studying Mandarin Chinese. Last fall, I was given the opportunity to participate in a health policy internship split between Beijing, Zhejiang and Bangkok this summer. It was a little worrying to see reports of three people in China being infected with the Bubonic Plague last fall, but the disease was contained. Then, I started seeing articles about a new disease in Wuhan. The New York Times reported on an outbreak of a “mystery pneumonia-like illness” on Jan. 6, but on Jan. 10, reports still indicated that the virus probably could not spread between humans. This would prove false. The outbreak grew quickly in China, despite lockdown and quarantine orders that at one point restricted the movement of more than 780 million people.

Of course, China’s outbreak now seems relatively sedate. Graphing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in each affected country by the days since that country’s 100th case shows that the U.S., and possibly Italy and Spain, experienced a more rapid increase in confirmed cases than China did. Even more alarmingly, deaths due to COVID-19 seem to be doubling much more rapidly in other countries than they did in China. There are a lot of complicating factors here, including the different criteria used to confirm cases of COVID-19 in different countries and the limited availability of laboratory tests which can confirm the presence of the virus. But it would be understandable for someone who is not an epidemiologist and doesn’t immerse themselves in world news to be surprised, and even shocked, by the seeming explosion of cases outside of China in the past month or so. 

Stanford announced that the remainder of winter quarter would be moved online on Friday, March 6. At the time, the U.S. had 282 confirmed cases, with 24 of them in Santa Clara county. Although Santa Clara was likely experiencing community spread of the virus by late February, it is difficult to “confirm” community spread. COVID-19’s incubation period, which is roughly five days on average, makes tracking the disease difficult. So does the fact that asymptomatic people can infect others, which wasn’t widely reported until more recently. At the time, therefore, Stanford’s decision to move to virtual classes seemed reasonable.

Stanford had already suspended BOSP’s study abroad program in Florence on Feb. 27. Social distancing measures, primarily involving canceling large gatherings, were introduced on campus on March 3. All of BOSP’s spring study abroad programs were canceled on March 4. Two students went into self-isolation after possible exposure to the virus on March 6 (they later tested negative for the virus). That same day, classes were moved online and Admit Weekend was canceled. The next day, March 7, Vice Provost Susie Brubaker-Cole sent out a message to students confirming that they could leave campus and finish the quarter remotely. All winter BOSP program students were asked to return home on March 10. That same day, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced that spring quarter would be conducted online for an indeterminate amount of time, and asked all students who were able to leave campus. On March 13, Tessier-Lavigne announced that the first Stanford undergraduate student had tested positive for the virus, that winter quarter final exams would be optional, and that all undergraduate students had to leave campus unless they had no place to go. In the following days, Santa Clara County enacted a shelter-in-place-order, which prompted the University to delay final exams. On March 19, all of spring quarter was moved online. 

The University administration made a clear effort to communicate quickly and clearly with students, starting with email blasts about measures being taken to respond to the outbreak. It was helpful that all mass communications from the administration were posted online, allowing students and family members to more easily find the latest news. However, looking back at this series of updates reveals a troubling pattern. The administration consistently tried to protect students and staff while minimizing disruptions to classes and research, but the desire to minimize disruptions ultimately undermined transparency and increased stress and uncertainty. 

The administration could have addressed whether students should stay on campus in its March 6 announcement that winter quarter classes and exams would be online, but it did not. The announcement did not address whether students were allowed to leave campus, so everyone had to wait until the next day to learn whether they could leave. The next day, when the administration announced that students were allowed to leave, it did not provide explicit guidance on whether they should leave. Messages to students did mention that students might face difficulty returning to the U.S., but the University did not announce that spring quarter would begin online until later. This left international students in a deeply uncertain position, as they were forced to ponder whether leaving campus in order to protect themselves would leave them unable to come back in time for spring quarter. 

This pattern of insufficient information continued later in the week on March 10, when Stanford asked students to leave campus and announced that spring quarter would begin online but did not provide an estimate of how much of spring quarter would take place online. Stanford also failed to commit to giving at least two weeks notice before classes restarted, which would have been the only way for international students to know that they would have sufficient time to get back to campus (travel restrictions on entry to the U.S. have generally barred people from entering the country if they have been to a hotspot in the past 14 days, and new hotspots were being added to the list with little warning). 

It wasn’t until March 19 that the administration offered more clarity about spring quarter, announcing that it would be moved entirely online. But the administration had asked all students who were able to leave campus by March 18, leaving many students uncertain whether they should bring all of their belongings with them or plan to return to campus. By delaying announcing plans for spring quarter, the University created more stress and uncertainty for students and more work for itself, as hundreds (if not thousands) of dorm rooms must now be vacated without students being on campus. 

Stanford’s administration has tried to stay optimistic about its chances of keeping the University running as normally as possible, and I appreciate that. But that optimism has led to an incremental approach that maximized student uncertainty and chaos. On March 6, when winter quarter was moved online, Tessier-Lavigne could have also announced that the University might be forced to ask students to move out, that spring quarter might be partially or fully conducted online and that the university would give students two weeks of notice if it called us back to campus. At any point in the past month, the administration could have sent out an explanation of its long-range plans, including the options being considered for finishing winter quarter and conducting spring quarter, and what factors (the number of cases in Santa Clara County, or in the U.S., or new information about the virus) would affect its decisions. At a minimum, each announcement could have included a set of possibilities for the next announcement. For instance, the March 6 announcement could have included the statement: 

“Depending on how circumstances evolve, the University may:

  • Proceed with spring quarter as planned
  • Begin spring quarter online and later move back to in-person classes, with a two week notice before the transition
    • This course of action might necessitate asking students to leave campus temporarily
  • Move spring quarter online in its entirety
    • This course of action would lead us to ask all students who are able to leave campus”

Of course, many Stanford students  were already discussing these possibilities on March 6. But hearing what was on the table for the administration, and what wasn’t, would have been enormously helpful. On March 9, The Daily Editorial Board even called on Stanford to “provide plans — even a highly provisional set — for how spring quarter may proceed.” This call was not answered. Instead, we got a stream of surprising and disruptive announcements with little to no forewarning. I suppose I’m asking for something like the Federal Reserve’s forward guidance: Since the early 2000s, the Fed has often taken advantage of public statements to provide hints about its long-range plans. Forward guidance is intended to reduce instability in financial markets and reassure investors. Frankly, Stanford students could use some reassurance. 

Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Sarah Myers '21 is pursuing a BA in International Relations while also studying Physics, Mandarin, and German. She enjoys writing about politics, ethics, and current events. She spends her free time reading and convincing herself that watching Chinese television counts as studying Mandarin.