Every student got the email — the one that told them they’d be returning to campus Oct. 5.
Some may have felt excited and hopeful. It’s no secret that online courses just don’t measure up to in-person learning. It can be difficult to stay motivated and focused on coursework when there’s no class schedule to structure one’s day and provide social interaction.
However, many Dukes may have felt upset when they opened that email. It seems that JMU has once again chosen to attempt in-person classes despite the failures that have received criticism from the student body as well as national attention from Anthony Fauci and publications like the Washington Post.
JMU shouldn’t return to in-person classes. The administration’s newest COVID-19 reopening plan, which was sent out to students Sept. 18, is only marginally better than the original precautions they took.
The university has also received criticism, especially from students, regarding its lack of commitment to enforcing the protections it advertised. To understand why JMU is unprepared to return to in-person classes, one must look no further than the first five days of the fall semester.
What went wrong?
In the initial plan to return to campus that was sent to students July 20, JMU made many promises that it failed to keep. For example, it was made clear to students that any gatherings consisting of more than 10 people would be prohibited. Masks would be required everywhere on campus and social distancing would be enforced.
When students arrived on campus, this wasn’t the case. Throughout FROG week and into the first week of classes, multiple large gatherings took place on campus — several of which violated the city of Harrisonburg’s ordinance that most gatherings, with few exceptions, must be limited to 50 people.
Ryan Ritter (’22), a senator in JMU’s Student Government Association, posted a viral Twitter thread chronicling the precautions JMU said would be taken versus what actually happened. In the thread, Ritter mentioned that JMU had hosted multiple outdoor movie nights with up to 250 students at once, with many violating the mask mandate.
JMU’s failure in handling this pandemic, a thread:— Ryan Ritter (@RitterRyan) August 31, 2020
The dining halls seemed to be one of the largest issues with JMU’s reopening plan. Social distancing wasn’t enforced. Dukes were permitted to sit at large tables together to eat, and while tables were slightly pushed apart, the new setup did nothing to combat the virus.
In the July 20 email that announced the return to campus, JMU said daily completion of the LiveSafe app would be enforced and checked at the door to most buildings and classrooms.
This didn’t happen.
Few students, if any, were required to show the green checkmark as a result of their “all clear” from the LiveSafe app, and many students seemed to disregard the app altogether.
Classrooms weren’t constructed in a way that promoted social distancing. Most classrooms had every other chair roped off, which provided a distance of three feet at the most. Hand sanitizer was available at the door of most classrooms, but the promised two boxes of extra disposable masks for each room seemed to be forgotten.
What about the new plan?
JMU’s new plan to reopen, while marginally better, doesn’t address many of the shortcomings of the previous plan.
The university said in the Sept. 18 email that it’s “tripled” its isolation and quarantine beds, and a boost in testing materials has been acquired through partnership with a “third-party testing company.”
According to the email, JMU is launching a mandatory testing program to get ahead of potential outbreaks. Three hundred random, asymptomatic students will be tested each week. However, one has to wonder: How will they enforce this? Should students be forced to be tested, and will they be punished if they refuse testing?
The university has also promised to limit classes to 50 people. However, it makes no assurance that social distancing will be easier or even possible, and it’s provided no other protections for class settings besides roped off seats and hand sanitizer available for those who think to use it.
JMU’s administration decided to cancel fall break to minimize travel and switch classes back to an online format after Thanksgiving break. This decision is a smart one and will hopefully keep students who choose to remain on campus safe and healthy after Thanksgiving break, but a safer decision would be to keep classes online throughout the entire semester.
The email also said the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices (OSARP) is reviewing over 250 complaints regarding students not following guidelines or hosting large gatherings. JMU must expedite these cases in order to protect students. If the most defiant and careless acts of students aren’t dealt with immediately, it could cause students to further lose faith in the administration and ultimately put the entire community at risk.
Remaining online is the sole safe solution
In reviewing JMU’s former and current reopening plans, one may find that the most daunting challenge the university faces is its inability to implement and enforce its promises to the student body.
Dukes may feel uncertain or even scared to return to campus after the monumental failure this fall. With continuing indecision and many upended plans this past month, JMU has lost the trust of its students. The university’s actions that seem to have prioritized its own financial well-being over the health and safety of its students has caused many Dukes to lose faith in their beloved JMU.
Many people understand that the times they’re living in are difficult. Most would probably love to return to campus and enjoy all that JMU has to offer, but the pandemic hasn’t allowed for that.
For JMU to reclaim the confidence of its students, classes must remain online. For JMU to regain Dukes’ trust, the university must recognize that life can’t go back to normal until definitive and substantive community action is taken to beat COVID-19.
Charlotte Matherly is a junior media arts & design major. Contact Charlotte at firstname.lastname@example.org.