By Cooper Veit
In the four days since Provost Drell announced her decision to bring back freshman and sophomores for winter quarter, the plan has been met among students with a mixture of cautious jubilation and overt skepticism. On some level students aren’t sure if they will be able to have a meaningful on-campus experience, but mostly they are terrified of contributing to the spread of COVID-19 or causing deaths in Santa Clara County. After talking to experts I think it is pretty clear that the latter fear is unjustified. This is not March and we really can trust even our sometimes-sorry administration to implement a data-driven reopening that is both fulfilling and consistent with harm-reduction principles.
I understand the first fear, the fear of driving down sunny Palm Drive only to find a Stanford penitentiary crawling with campus police and two-faced RA informants. The University is saying it will promote outdoor activities and gatherings, and while I trust them to create a really meaningful experience for the underclassmen there is no way of knowing for certain.
But I have a feeling that what is keeping so many of these thoughtful and serious underclassmen tossing and turning at night is not really fear for themselves but fear for others, fear of others indulging the desires for in-person socializing that they have so diligently abnegated for so long.
Fortunately, it is hard to imagine how Stanford’s current plan could lead to risk for Santa Clara County, let alone risk for students and staff. It really is a solid plan from a COVID-19 perspective, one that Stanford infectious disease doctors contributed to and are happy with.
This is not March. We know that the disease spreads indoors much easier than outdoors, and we know that airborne transmission is far more common than the previously hypothesized surfaces and fomites. We know who is at risk, and we know who is generally safe. Stanford has learned from its own experience hosting hundreds of undergrads and grad students on campus this fall with zero large clusters.
I spoke about what we’ve learned since March with Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at UCSF. She introduced me to the idea of “non-pharmaceutical interventions” or NPIs, interventions we know reduce the spread and severity of disease. There are four NPIs for COVID-19: masking, distancing, hand hygiene and ventilation/airflow. Hospitals practice these interventions religiously, and hospitals have never been implicated as driving community spread. Public and private grade schools that follow these steps have not driven community spread, and outdoor dining establishments that follow these principles (as they must in Santa Clara County) have not been linked to community spread either.
We’ve also learned from the experiences of other universities. Scholars at Cornell University shocked the world, and many at Stanford, when they predicted that students would be less likely to spread COVID-19 on campus in Ithaca than at home taking online classes. They predicted an infection rate of 3.6% on campus, assuming in-person classes and some student socializing. But, in reality, when Cornell invited all of its students back to campus, classes were rarely indoors and the college has had a far lower rate for the entire semester so far. There were only a few small clusters, linked to an athlete party and indoor socializing.
Stanford’s reopening will have no bars, no Greek life, no football games and storming the field. Stanford’s reopening will have no packed lecture halls or overcrowded dorms. Except for the presence of athletes, Stanford has none of the triggers that have caused disasters at other schools. And there are advantages and innovations — half capacity, separation from Palo Alto, thoughtful student body and so on — that helped drive Stanford infectious disease experts to support and advocate the reopening plan.
Dean Winslow, M.D., professor of medicine at Stanford and an expert in infectious disease, told me that the current Stanford plan with half capacity and staggered entry is eminently reasonable and based in good science.
“Any time that you reopen there is some risk, but I think that risk is manageable and I think what the university is proposing is evidence-based and science-based.”
Based on current trends, the cases in Santa Clara County will likely be flattening by January, but it is more likely that the county brings the virus into Stanford than that the controlled campus drives the virus into the county. When I asked Dr. Winslow about this, he said he hopes students stay inside the Stanford bubble.
“I’m not the kind of person who is shy about speaking up if I had concerns. In other words, if I had an undergrad, I would be supportive of this. One thing, though, that I do think is important if we do start opening up Palo Alto after the middle part of January, I think it would be really ideal to strongly encourage students to stay on campus. [Going off campus is] how cases have increased at other universities.”
The town-university interface is one area to definitely keep an eye on. Another area that many students toss and turn about is the question of janitors and subcontracted service workers who are forced to work long hours with no hazard pay. This is a tremendously valid and legitimate concern, and worker advocates are doing wonderful work exposing the intellectual and moral hollowness of the elite meritocratic capitalism to which our University is a temple. But concerns about pay and workload come from an economic and social justice perspective, rather than a COVID-19 infection perspective. Janitors’ risk of catching COVID-19 from dirty surfaces is very small, and food service workers at dining halls are low risk. The University and its subcontractor UG2 must do a better job providing access to free testing, but generally workers are not at any high risk of workplace exposure.
In fact, if done right Stanford’s soft reopening could be a win for service workers across the Bay Area — a high-profile stand for science-based harm reduction as opposed to the fear-based total shutdowns that have seemingly unfairly devastated Bay Area small businesses (and their often Brown and Black workforces).
Not all restrictions are rooted in data, and Stanford saying confidently that it can bring students back without major risks provides intellectual cover for advocates fighting against restrictions that disproportionately impact working families. For too long Bay Area health officials and scientists have been afraid to acknowledge the complexity of police-enforced curfews, of school or playground closures in large cities.
Dr. Gandhi described the current moment to me as one of calming down, a de-politicization and a return to reasonable science-driven discussion. I think that is right. As the playground wars work their way out, the new year will be a time for cautious optimism and truly productive discussion among scientists and on the left. About schools, about outdoor dining, about support for working people. Some things are going to reopen. And it is okay.
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