The Furman Focused email sent on Dec. 30 delivered the highly anticipated news that classes will begin in person on Jan. 10. The email said that “it is our hope and expectation that Furman will be able to continue operations through the spring semester as we did in the fall.”
Although Furman Focused asked for “time to develop and communicate more guidance,” leaving the door open for additional guidelines, the message of the email was clear — Furman originally planned to operate mostly as it did in the fall semester.
The fall provided a refreshing sense of normalcy. Vaccination rates among students and staff were high (93% as of last semester), and COVID-19 cases on campus remained relatively low amidst the Delta variant. I appreciate the university’s goal to balance safety and public health with providing a fulfilling college experience. However, the current circumstances require more adjustment. Looming behind the university’s original assertion that normalcy would prevail was the reality that where we are now is a completely different place than in the fall.
The most recent email on Jan. 7 adequately addressed the current pandemic climate and ramped up some restrictions, stressing the critical period of the next couple of weeks. Masks are now mandated in all indoor locations, and it is "strongly recommended" that students wear masks in rooms or apartments that aren't their own. I support these measures. These two weeks will determine whether or not Furman has to shut down.
Here's the situation. The Omicron variant is highly contagious. It is spreading at a rapid rate — 2.7 to 3.7 times faster than the Delta variant among vaccinated people. However, the good news is that the symptoms are less severe than Delta, especially for vaccinated individuals. Furman’s booster requirement is a promising layer of protection for the community.
Unfortunately, being vaccinated and having the booster shot do not guarantee COVID-19 protection. Greenville numbers are growing fast. Higher numbers of breakthrough cases are to be expected. Given this new pandemic reality, the university should adjust some of its policies from last semester.
Due to the high transmissibility of Omicron, the university should anticipate more students getting COVID-19 this semester than last semester. Therefore, Furman must be prepared to quarantine more students and have the proper protocol in place to maintain their education. The current policy states that “Furman does not guarantee remote access to academic courses and/or any other offerings during quarantine or isolation.” The policy also notes that “students must communicate with their individual instructors to develop a plan to make up any missed academic work.”
This policy places an unfair burden on students and could hinder our education this semester. The current CDC guidelines on isolation mean that a student with COVID-19 can miss up to five days of class with no guaranteed access to Zoom. Of course, many professors might provide this accommodation, but Zoom access option should be universally mandated. Without a uniform standard, students' quality of education is at stake. Requiring professors to provide Zoom access for quarantined students will prevent the many inequities and disputes that could arise from professors deciding their own policies. Obtaining notes from other students in the class and learning the material second hand is not as engaging or beneficial as watching a lecture in real time on Zoom.
Although Zoom needs to be an option, Furman should maintain the norm that students should not be required to be on Zoom if they are sick. Professors should still provide options such as recorded lectures and other online materials. If anything, the pandemic has prompted educational institutions such as Furman to increase the flexibility of learning — a development that Furman should maintain. Of course, I hope that in-person classes can be preserved as much as possible this semester, but we must adapt to shifting circumstances and have helpful policies in place to accommodate for those who will have to quarantine.
I encourage Furman Focused to make the Furman community as prepared as possible for whatever accommodations may be needed next semester. We are not where we were in the fall. Educational protocol for quarantined students must be adjusted to provide a quality education for students.