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Reopening colleges poses ethical questions, need for flexibility


  • The score board at an empty baseball field is seen on the campus of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., July 26, 2020. Students are bound to see big changes on Catholic college campuses throughout the U.S. as the institutions deal with the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)
  • A dedication plaque to John Compardo Sr. is seen in front of an athletic complex on the campus of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., July 26, 2020. Students are bound to see big changes on Catholic college campuses throughout the U.S. as the institutions deal with the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)
  • A stand containing hand sanitizer, masks and latex gloves is at the entry of the student center at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., July 26, 2020, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students are bound to see big changes on Catholic college campuses throughout the U.S. as the institutions deal with the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)
  • A sign displaying social distancing guidelines stands in front of the campus store at DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., July 26, 2020. Students are bound to see big changes on Catholic college campuses throughout the U.S. as the institutions deal with the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)
  • A face mask is placed on a statue called "Jesus The Teacher" on the campus of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., July 26, 2020. Students are bound to see big changes on Catholic college campuses throughout the U.S. as the institutions deal with the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)
  • A sign for the Dorothy Day Student Union is seen on the campus of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., July 26, 2020. Students are bound to see big changes on Catholic college campuses throughout the U.S. as the institutions deal with the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As one college president put it: "It's been a year like no other."

Ann McElaney-Johnson, president of Mount St. Mary's University in Los Angeles, made that understatement during a June 22 webinar, "Staying Reopened," coordinated by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

The president of the women's college -- looking back at the disruptive end of the spring semester and forward to the university's plans to reopen this fall, with a mix of in-person and virtual classes -- said the school has done what it needed to do and has been "ready to pivot at any moment" to go virtual or follow different protocols.

That flexibility has been key in all decisions Catholic higher education officials have had to make this year about operating amid a pandemic. "Subject to change" is essentially the modus operandi.

Every school also seems to have a COVID-19 guidebook detailing every aspect of the health and safety plan on campus. Assumption University, an Augustinian school in Worcester, Massachusetts, described its handbook as "a living document that is regularly evaluated and updated as the public health situation or state and federal guidelines change."

These evolving changes to university life and the bigger questions of how to reopen have raised logistical and ethical questions too.

A July 14 Fordham University Zoom panel where theology professors examined Catholic social teaching in universities' responses to reopening during the pandemic stressed that solidarity, concern for the vulnerable and protection of the sacredness of life all need to be considered in how schools move forward right now.

Similarly, an opinion piece by Vincentian Father Dennis Holtschneider, ACCU president, published July 21 by the online news site, Inside Higher Ed, raised several ethical questions for colleges and universities to consider.

For starters, he stressed the personal health responsibility of each person at a university. "In a pandemic, going to a frat party is a health decision. So is attending class, teaching a class, eating in a cafeteria or sharing an off-campus apartment with a roommate. People who have known health vulnerabilities, especially, must make decisions with that in mind, regardless of the reopening decisions made by the cities or organizations of which they are a part."

Another issue is: "How much cleaning is enough cleaning to be ethically in the clear?"

Father Holtschneider also pointed out the college community's responsibility to the town where it's located, raising the question of the school's responsibility to keep the surrounding areas virus-free.

To this end, he asked: "Should students be encouraged -- or even required -- to socialize on campus rather than in local establishments? Should internships, service learning and volunteerism be discontinued in the immediate term? Alternatively, should students be encouraged to serve as contact tracers or to provide wellness checks by phoning the elderly who live alone? In short, should they become more or less a part of the community as we find ways to care for one another through a pandemic?"

The priest raised many questions without clear solutions, but his piece likely echoed discussions taking place on Catholic campuses nationwide right after they tackled the first question of how to reopen and explained that to their school communities.

Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, explained the university's decision to be in-person this fall in a May 26 opinion piece in The New York Times where he noted the risks involved in opening the campus and said school officials "believe the good of educating students and continuing vital research is very much worth the remaining risk."

Like other schools, he said, Notre Dame had relied on "the best medical advice and scientific information available and are assiduously planning a reopening that will make the campus community as safe as possible."

McElaney-Johnson said in the ACCU webinar that the decision to reopen in person was to best meet the diverse needs of the university's students whom she described as primarily nontraditional students and more than half are first-generation college students. Remote learning in the spring was difficult for many of them, she said, because not all students had WiFi access or even space to work.

"They need to be a community of scholars," she said, emphasizing the community, or in-person, aspect of the university.

Loyola University Chicago, which announced that it would be primarily online this fall and completely online for freshmen, said in an announcement to students this was a "difficult decision" made in response to the "increase in COVID-19 infection rates and deaths across the country this summer."

Another Jesuit school, the University of San Francisco, similarly announced that its classes will be online this fall and that all academic courses -- except for some clinical nursing programs -- will be conducted on Zoom. The majority of faculty and staff will continue to work remotely, and there will be no residential housing.

Jesuit Father Paul Fitzgerald, the university's president, said the decision was made in light of California Gov. Gavin Newsom's decision to roll back the state's reopening plans. In May, the school had planned to include an on-campus option for the fall, if deemed permissible by local authorities.

"Unfortunately, the rapidly changing information and data regarding the pandemic's resurgent course requires us to pivot from that plan to our other remote plan," the priest said in the announcement on the university's website.

College presidents of schools that are reopening similarly reached out to tell students of the fall plans and to emphasize the plans could only work with the students' help.

"Our Catholic and Dominican heritage calls us to care for others, particularly those most in need. We are a community of caring, so we each have individual responsibility to others on our campus. It will require the cooperation of all of us to ensure that our campus is as safe as possible," said Kevin Quinn, president of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

And at least one college official also said the new plan required something else: courage.

"We look forward to a return to campus, even though it will be unlike previous semesters," said Brother Daniel Wisniewski, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, and university provost of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. "As we face so much uncertainty during this pandemic, our patron St. Francis de Sales reminds us to 'have courage' because our loving God is with us."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

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