The decision to reopen the college, despite the ongoing and unpredictable pandemic we are experiencing, is insensitive to the disproportionate risk it poses for people of color and the working class. Allegheny’s Statement of Community boasts a commitment to “creating an inclusive, respectful and safe residential learning community that will actively confront and challenge racism, sexism, heterosexism, religious bigotry, and other forms of harassment and discrimination.” These two things — reopening and creating a safe environment on campus — lie in direct opposition to one another.
The Statement of Community’s compendium of oppression omits a huge issue: classism. That classism is not listed as a protected social class in our campus community is a perfect example of the ways in which the bureaucratic decision-makers who run the college overlook the needs and desires of the working class. As a considerable portion of the student body is composed of people from low-income backgrounds, we must recognize that this oversight is jarring and potentially harmful.
Despite a particular school’s purported values and standards, a college is first and foremost a business. This much is evident each time we have to buy textbooks, choose a meal plan or housing and, of course, pay tuition. Being a private college, Allegheny relies heavily on tuition — tuition that might not flow into the institution quite as freely, had the college opted to conduct all classes remotely.
I know that I would have reconsidered paying Allegheny’s tuition if classes were entirely online, because I do not feel that I am capable of learning as much without face-to-face interaction. Not knowing what my Allegheny tuition will precisely entail in terms of person-to-person interactions is extremely disheartening, as a huge deciding factor in choosing a college is class size. The Allegheny experience promised to include small professor-to-student ratios and a genuine sense of community, both of which are called into question by the current state of affairs.
I also recognize that I have the privilege of not being at high-risk, should I contract COVID-19; my decision to go along with returning to campus this semester absolutely reflects that. Immunocompromised or otherwise at-risk populations, on the other hand, might have to take into account their own personal health and safety more than a person like myself does.
Beyond personal wellness, many members of our campus community also must take into consideration how best to protect their loved ones. Some of us have elderly people, children or healthcare workers, for example, in the family, all of whom must be most concerned about limiting contact with others.
Living on campus makes each and every one of us a sort of liability to everyone else with whom we interact. This includes the cashier at the grocery store, the person who sanitizes your shopping cart handle, post office employees, dining hall workers and everyone else who exists within the interconnected social web of a campus community.
A Meadville Medical Center notice from Aug. 18 informed residents of Crawford County that, although the number of cases in the area had been relatively low, the past several weeks had “a rather concerning increase in cases.” As students return to campus from all over the country, this trend is bound to continue. We have seen other colleges already face consequences for returning to campus, directly endangering public health.
As part-time members of the Meadville community, we students have a responsibility to do our part in protecting those who live here full-time by strictly adhering to sanitary guidelines. An increase in COVID-19 cases will negatively impact not only Crawford County, but all of our respective home communities, and in turn, the entire country.
That being said, I feel that the college itself had a greater responsibility in making the decision to resume in-person classes. For this reason, I hesitate to hold students morally accountable for acting upon whatever bit of trust we may put in the institution. Moreover, we are all suspended in the same overwhelming uncertainty. The implications of such an emotional state may prove to be a burden upon one’s mental health. It is my hope that a certain level of leniency and flexibility will be assumed as a default for us all.
Safely returning to campus requires collective action. In a perfect world, we could all work together and conduct our individual lives responsibly; in our world, however, I do not have much faith in that possibility. It seems as though the immediate future is befogged by uncertainty and fragility — these conditions could precipitate a revolution.
Whether we can continue campus life safely or are forced to return home within the next couple of weeks, I sincerely hope that this incendiary potential can be channeled into something productive, meaningful and utterly new.