By Aaron Thompson
Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President
As the fall semester kicks off at colleges and universities across Kentucky, there is still much uncertainty. The spread of the virus is accelerating at exactly the wrong moment, threatening to undo months of planning. The decision to resume in-person operations is truly a Sophie’s choice. There is no perfect solution, and for every person happy with the decision, someone else is not.
As president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, I can assure you that no matter how this semester plays out, your college or university has not taken this decision lightly. Since March, I have been working with the presidents of our public institutions, the head of the Association of Kentucky Independent Colleges and Universities, Dr. Stephen Stack and Gov. Beshear to ensure schools are following CDC guidelines and implementing every available measure to keep you safe.
If you are a residential student heading to campus, you’ll notice some big changes. The dorms won’t be as populated, and you’ll have fewer (or no) roommates. Many of the common areas will be closed, including dining halls, which are offering delivery and to-go options.
Even though you’re back on campus, some of your professors won’t be, at least not physically. You’ll likely be attending class both in person and online, and you and your professor will be wearing masks and sitting six feet apart.
You’ll be asked to complete daily health checks, and if you are exposed to the virus, you’ll be quarantined. If an outbreak occurs, classes may quickly move online.
As these re-start plans have developed and evolved, I have been impressed by how campuses are creatively reimagining extracurricular activities. From virtual fraternity and sorority rush to smaller, socially distanced orientation weeks, there will be many opportunities for social interaction.
However, much of the success of these well-laid plans depends on you. Faculty, administrators and staff have done their part. Now it is up to you to adhere to the rules designed to protect you and everyone around you.
Across the country, we’ve already seen how off-campus parties are jeopardizing the in-person experience. At East Carolina University, more than 20 parties were broken up during the opening weekend, one with over 400 students. At Notre Dame, almost all of the active COVID-19 cases on campus can be traced back to one off-campus party with hundreds of students in attendance.
If you engage in these types of behaviors, you are not only undermining the plans your school has worked so hard to implement, you’re placing your entire community at risk. The party you host or attend could literally be a matter of life or death for individuals with underlying health conditions. The people who teach and work on your campus have family members at home, some of whom are elderly or have compromised immune systems.
When the virus subsides, there will be time to experience every aspect of college life. Until then, you have a responsibility to yourself and others to live up to the trust that has been placed in you. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Stay six feet apart and for now, keep gatherings at 10 people or less.
Remember that while many parts of campus life have changed, the essential elements of your college experience have not. Whether in person or online, you are there to train for a career, pursue your passions, and discover what you stand for, think and believe. Fewer distractions mean more time to read, study and reflect on what you want to be and accomplish. Now is the time to dig into your studies and give some serious thought to your future.
According to the PEW Research Center, college-educated workers are the only group who did not experience double-digit unemployment while the nation sheltered in place. College-educated workers have greater flexibility to work from the safety of their homes. A college degree will provide you with higher earnings and greater economic security over the course of your career, so when the next recession strikes, you will be shielded from its most negative effects.
Like so many things in 2020, this semester will be unprecedented. Stay focused on what really matters. This virus will not last forever, but your college degree will. Study hard, socialize responsibly and stay safe.