We are a group of Brown School students writing to express our concern about the planned return to campus. Although we all wish that we could safely return to campus, we believe it is in the best interest of the students and the St. Louis community for the Brown School and Washington University as a whole to follow the decisions made by other schools, including Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities, to begin the Fall 2020 semester completely online. It is by this commitment that we hope the Brown School may set the precedent for Washington University to follow.
An in-person return to campus threatens the health and safety of fellow students, faculty, staff, and the larger St. Louis community. Returning in-person also creates equity issues in conflict with the values of the Brown School, both for members of our school and beyond. Our demands are that classes are online by default and that the school work directly with students in need or who want an in-person option. We recognize that some of the student body must attend in-person classes due to factors such as federal restrictions (i.e. for international students) and accessibility needs. These circumstances do not necessitate bringing all students back to campus, as more students create additional risk of exposure for those who need to be there.
At the Returning Students Town Hall, participants were told that Brown School leadership is in daily communication with public health experts to ensure the safest reopening. Dean Mary McKay also said that our very own public health professionals are consulting both St. Louis County and city on best practice approaches to ensure the safety of the St. Louis communities.
However, existing and emerging data on COVID-19 transmission both locally and nationally give greater cause for concern regarding the school administration's decision not to broadly default to online or virtual learning options. As of August 6, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported 1,062 new cases in 24 hours, and St. Louis city and county are two of the top three counties in the state for the number of cases. These numbers are also not evenly distributed, with elderly and Black populations facing a disproportionate impact compared to younger, white St. Louis residents. Other schools in our area recognize this, with many city and county schools planning to begin classes completely online while the Brown School is not.
The university’s Community Pledge and Policy Acknowledgement outlines that efforts are being made to provide students with a high-quality educational experience, though this could be attained via virtual learning modalities with much less risk. The University of California, Berkeley had also created a robust plan to return for in-person instruction this fall. They have since reversed this decision, opting for a return to online learning, citing an increase in cases on campus.
The safety measures introduced for our return – such as self-screening, wearing masks, and physical distancing – are insufficient to protect the health of the Brown School, university, and St. Louis communities. Self-screening, as defined in the reopening plan, includes taking one’s temperature and self-reporting any symptoms, with fever being used as a quintessential marker of COVID-19.
However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) current best estimate is that nearly 40% of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, and even those who will develop symptoms are contagious for two days prior to symptoms appearing. A study released in the New England Journal of Medicine in April 2020 reported that of lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19, 43.8% of patients admitted to the hospital had no fever at admission, and only developed it over the course of their illness. If students and staff are self-screening before coming to campus, a similar percentage may be returning to campus as asymptomatic carriers or without a fever. The CDC has found no difference in viral load in symptomatic vs asymptomatic patients.
Moreover, a requirement to attend classes in-person creates unsafe expectations for students to come to campus at the expense of their health. Students may feel pressure to attend in-person classes, even if there are lax attendance policies, potentially resulting in people hiding their symptoms or exposures. For those who have had COVID-19, symptoms range from those of a flu, cold, sinus infection, chronic illness, or even seasonal allergies. When any symptom may be COVID-19, it may be hard for people to discern what truly is a symptom. In a high-pressure academic environment like the Brown School, we fear people will feel pressure to dismiss COVID-19 symptoms to continue attending class.
Even with access to free and timely COVID-19 testing (which has not been offered in any reopening plan by Washington University), there is no sure way to prevent asymptomatic transmission on campus. Some frequently used rapid tests are also seen to be rather nonspecific, with an estimated 30-40% false negative rate. We do not feel these guidelines are sufficient to keep us safe this fall.
The decision both as a school and a university to return to campus has community-wide implications—the university is not an isolated entity. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted under-resourced populations in St. Louis that carry a higher burden of disease. We must commit to make the conscionable decision to refuse to augment community spread. As a leading school of social work and public health, we must make virtual learning the norm for the upcoming semester.
Without this commitment, students will increase COVID-19 exposure to community members. Bringing hundreds of students back this fall means they will be coming in and out of the neighborhoods surrounding our campus, as well as reducing access to health care by putting additional burden on local testing and urgent care centers. It is one thing to attempt mitigating transmission for students on campus and another when measures do not provide the same attention to at-risk Black and Brown communities’ health and wellness while interfacing with students outside of our university. Many Brown School students are essential workers. They will still be forced to work in-person jobs off campus to sustain themselves and will already be putting themselves and others at risk. This will only worsen if students must also return to campus.
Virtual approaches to education are not ideal but in the spirit of being anti-racist, evidence-based, and trauma-informed— as well as acknowledging the role we play in the community— we must recognize it is well within our means both economically and practically to take preventative steps to curb community spread.
With rising rates of COVID-19 cases and school administration already anticipating a shift to 100% virtual classes mid-semester, we are asking the Brown School and the university to take planned action to move to virtual education now in an intentional way. The risk to our community is too great to exchange for a false sense of normalcy. Student, faculty, staff, and community members’ lives must not be held in the balance for the daily operations of the university to resume, and condolences will fall flat when a member of our community inevitably gets sick or potentially dies from a preventable exposure.
The student co-authors of this open letter asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.