A Safe Return? The Choice Is Yours
These past few months have been challenging for the students of Yeshiva University. The inability to learn and socialize in-person runs counter to the modern conception of the university. With the click of a button, students aimlessly wander in and out of the virtual Zoom classrooms, while also facing newfound unique financial, personal and health-related challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has produced — all within the confines of their childhood bedroom, kitchen or quarantine space.
Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, YU has generally thrived through its on-campus experience. However, many students would admit that the YU experience since March has been quite substandard; the lack of social events, networking opportunities and student-professor relationships have left a lasting negative impact on all of us. Hopefully, the return to campus this October for many students will mark a return to normalcy. This all depends on the student body’s adherence to the rules.
Current New York State guidelines mandate that if 5% of an on-campus population or 100 individuals — including students, faculty and staff — test positive for COVID-19 within a 14-day period, the university must transition to remote learning and limit in-person activities. In practice, this means that if there is a pool of 500 people on campus, only 25 students, faculty and staff must test positive in order to flip the university’s plan on its head.
With the advice of Dr. Robert van Amerongen, YU has developed various measures to protect the health and safety of students. Students will have to wear masks and social-distance in public areas such as the library or the cafeteria. These rules can only be effective if there is complete compliance.
Setting aside the obvious health-risks of the coronavirus for individuals, we fear the danger of a few irresponsible students getting sick, spreading the disease and ruining the campus experience for the entire community. There might be a desire on the part of some students to host “Heights parties” or “kiddush clubs,” waiving off the pandemic reality as a farce or an inconvenience. Some might try to skirt the rules, but they should remember that the rules were created for their benefit to prevent another shutdown. All it takes is 5%.
Over the next few weeks, many students will be arriving on campus from across the country and abroad. These students –– who have not seen their college friends, significant others, professors and rabbis since March –– will be following strict quarantine rules for the sake of the health of the entire YU community. If the university is forced to shut down once again as a result of careless behavior, these out-of-town students may have nowhere to go. The only guarantee for a safe fall semester is a united adherence to the university’s guidelines.
On the topic of accountability, we also must acknowledge that there are some uncertainties in YU’s reopening plan. Regarding Shabbos, the plan states, “To minimize student travel on and off campus, we strongly encourage all students to remain on campus for Shabbat and the entire weekend.” But will students stay on campus for Shabbos? Why would they? Out of a concern for public health? Perhaps, but the university never outlines how it would “encourage” students who are not necessarily driven by that concern to stay on campus. YU must take a pragmatic approach and consider incentives for students to stay in, possibly by offering meaningful activities and heavily discounted or free Shabbos meals.
Unfortunately, a comprehensive Shabbos plan has yet to be relayed to students. A poorly constructed one, we fear, might upend the rest of the university’s plan. If students feel that they will get more from going back home for the weekend or eating with friends in an apartment, the door to infections and another shutdown will be left wide open. Thus, YU also needs to check its locks to ensure a successful campus return.
We anticipate that the university’s plan will be safely implemented. We will be sure to praise, critique and report on the plan when necessary. Shabbos is just one aspect of the plan; there may be other parts of it that could go wrong. Nevertheless, we hope — more than anything — that we will not have to criticize our fellow students for being derelict in their responsibility to the public health and welfare of the student body and Jewish community. The choice is yours.
Editor’s Note: For an article to be designated under the byline of “The Commentator Editorial Board,” a minimum of 75% of editorial board members, including the editor-in-chief, are required to give their assent.