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Pregnall: Virginia Tech’s Student Townhall on COVID-19 Demonstrates the Perils of Different Risk Judgements and Value Sets

Pregnall: Virginia Tech’s Student Townhall on COVID-19 Demonstrates the Perils of Different Risk Judgements and Value Sets

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By Andrew M. Pregnall

Pregnall graduated from Virginia Tech with degrees in microbiology and history as its 2019 Undergraduate Student of the Year. He is a postgraduate in Health Data Science at University College London as a 2020 Marshall Scholar.

On 11 September 2020, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands hosted a town hall to provide current students the opportunity to ask questions about the university’s COVID-19 planning and response. As a recent alum, I was heartened to see the students ask tough, specific questions of the administration about its plans. They clearly expected more from Tech in its efforts to provide them and the Blacksburg community with a safe opening, and their questions highlighted areas where Tech could improve its response.

A consistent undercurrent of the questioning was whether Tech would shift to an online format. President Sands’ response suggested that Tech was committed to staying open until the semester’s Thanksgiving cutoff, and Sands provided two reasons in support of this commitment: (1) Moving to an online format would not help and (2) sending students home could be worse epidemiologically. Both of these are true, and this is where I fear universities have backed themselves into a corner.

Universities have focused intensively on the technical challenges of opening such as testing, contact tracing, and reducing the risk of in-person classes through measures like adapting classrooms to align with physical distancing guidelines. In this sense, some universities have likely been successful in reducing the transmission of COVID-19 on-campus, which is why moving online would not help. Yet universities across the nation have still posted alarming numbers of new COVID-19 cases. This is because they have not taken into account the social challenges of opening.

By bringing students back, universities created environments — mostly off-campus — where they have limited power to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. Students 18-to-22 year olds are developmentally predisposed to making risky decisions such as driving too fast or holding house parties during a respiratory pandemic. This is not a surprise. We price the former into elements of society like car insurance, and universities ‘price’ this into their normal operations by using student conduct processes to allow students to learn from their mistakes. However, this model is not concomitant with a respiratory pandemic when one house party has the potential to affect an entire community.

Thus, as we are seeing, cases rise, and universities struggle to respond since the events driving transmission are happening outside of their domains and sending students home could worsen the situation by seeding those communities with COVID-19. All of this begs the question of whether universities should have brought students back in the first place, and I fear this is a question that will have different answers for universities and their communities — potentially worsening what can be already fraught relationships.

Let’s return to Tech as an example. If by the end of the fall semester, Tech had, say, 1-3,000 cases but the local hospital system was not strained, few cases spread from campus to the community, and Tech maintained their in-person learning component, they would likely label their efforts a success. And they could justifiably make that claim. If in the same situation, however, a community member claimed Tech’s opening was not successful because they had 1-3,000 cases or — worse — a student, faculty, or staff member died of COVID-19, they would also be right. We have entered a situation in which people and institutions are making different risk judgements based on different value sets, and the likelihood this tension disappears seems small unless universities take steps to regain the trust of their communities. This starts by taking responsibility for the fact that they created risky environments by choosing to bring students back to campus — not just blaming students for entirely predictable behavior. Then, universities must be radically transparent and sensitive to feedback from their communities so that these communities have agency in the policy-level decisions affecting them.

To this end, Tech should commit to a regular schedule of townhalls with a live questioning format. Given that we are in a fluid situation, holding these events weekly seems apt, and in addition to engaging students, Tech should also provide faculty and staff, Blacksburg residents, and alumni the opportunity to participate. Then, Tech must take seriously the concerns of those participating by taking action, giving direct answers, and providing specific information about the logistical and financial factors driving their decisions. For instance, in the recent town hall, one student raised concerns about Tech’s COVID-19 dashboard. Tech should update their dashboard accordingly and cite the student’s feedback as a reason for doing so. Ultimately, Tech holds itself up for “solving complex problems, pushing boundaries, [and] serving others.” It should work — and be proud — to include its stakeholders in that process.

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