Who is responsible for school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Sophie Gritsch

Peter M. Fisher/The Image Bank via Getty Images Plus

Numerous academic institutions announced they would be welcoming students back to campus for the fall semester just months after a number of colleges and universities in the United States sent students home and opted for online courses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, students, parents and educators had mixed reactions to this news. Many were relieved that students could return to school and regain some sense of normalcy that had been missing for the past several months. Others were much more reserved, wary of the idea that thousands of students, faculty, and staff would be in close proximity to one another, despite the number of safety precautions that most of these schools insisted they would implement and strictly enforce.

The latter group was quickly proven right, as schools began to send students away once again just days after the semester had begun due to spikes in confirmed COVID-19 cases among individuals on campuses. The question quickly arose: were these cases and subsequent campus closings the fault of irresponsible students, or overeager and underprepared academic institutions?

One one hand, many argue that since so many higher education institutions closed their campuses and moved completely online in March, there is no valid explanation for their reopening only months later, with little to no improvements in the pandemic’s case numbers in the United States. Even with frequent testing, strict social distancing, and mask-wearing protocols in effect, there was no way that schools could create safe environments on their campuses.

On the other hand, some believe that recent spikes in cases on campuses are the result of reckless students. If schools have taken every necessary precaution, blame could only be placed on students who failed to comply with their schools’ instructions.

An alternative perspective, that is seemingly less popular than the previously mentioned viewpoints, is that both of these groups’ missteps created a perfect storm. The combination of the schools’ fear of losing students and students’ fears of losing their college experience cultivated a hazardous environment that would not have otherwise existed, and which resulted in nearly immediate school closures as confirmed cases among individuals on college campuses grew.

Of course, pointing fingers will not directly solve any problems, and during a time of such upheaval, it is best not to create any unnecessary conflict. It is important, however, to recognize and acknowledge the factors and behaviors that influenced the path that many colleges and universities went down in recent weeks. The numerous decisions and actions that led to these closures must be considered in hopes that this will not become a pattern in upcoming semesters and school years.