In the 129-year history of the Leland Stanford Junior University, it has been twice destroyed by major earthquakes; its students have fought and died in the bloodiest wars of the 20th century; and it has endured and prospered through both the Great Depression and the Spanish Flu Pandemic.
Not once did Stanford close its doors, until now.
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has already sent students home for the Spring, and threatens to keep Stanford shuttered into autumn and beyond. But the Review says it doesn’t have to. Come the fall, with some creativity and resolve, Stanford can, and should, open once again.
The last major pandemic in the U.S. was the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, which was far more deadly than Covid-19, even threatening our own youthful demographic. There were other deadly pandemics in 1957 and 1968. Yet Stanford remained open throughout all of them. During the Spanish Flu outbreak, Stanford continued to conduct in-person classes while requiring masks, and used its medical resources to treat the sick. This was the smart, can-do attitude that built Stanford into a world-renowned university.
Today, as 102 years ago, Stanford has the capacity to keep its community safe and treat its members should they fall ill. On top of an impressive endowment, Stanford boasts a world-class medical school and distinguished scientists that can aid its adaptation to changing circumstances. The university is also well-placed in the middle of suburbia, and California’s numbers are encouraging especially compared to closely-packed urban centers like New York City.
Dr. Scott Atlas, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and former chief of neuroradiology at the Stanford University Medical Center, believes that hesitations to reopen colleges in the fall have no basis in science and worse, are destructive to young people. As Dr. Atlas put it in an interview with the Review, “The idea that it is a danger to get [Covid-19] for college-aged people is incorrect. Many are asymptomatic or very mild. The high-risk should have the option to social distance, but that has nothing to do with young healthy people among themselves. Stanford has a responsibility to teach young people to use logic and common sense, not simply react to the worst-case projections.”
Especially compared to other risks we take every day, the majority of Stanford students and professors are extremely low risk for Covid-19. Compare the estimated mortality of Covid-19 relative to transportation accidents where 1 denotes equal risk. That means people between the ages 15-24 are 50 times more likely to die from a transportation accident than Covid-19. Even between the ages of 45-54, Covid-19 remains much less deadly than transportation accidents: the relative risk of death from Covid-19 is 0.90 per 100,000 compared to 14.00 people per 100,000 dying in transportation accidents.
Rather than treat everyone as high-risk, Stanford should help students and faculty to understand the actual danger Covid-19 poses to their health and allow them to make an informed decision on whether being on campus is right for their own health, learning, and personal priorities. For those who are high-risk, appropriate accommodations can and should be made.
Anything less than a full reopening in the fall (save a few necessary modifications) not only ignores the true physical risk of Covid-19, but also undermines Stanford’s duties as a university to provide the best education and experience for its students. Integral to Stanford’s character is its community, built on lifelong friendships, mentorship from leaders in a myriad of fields, innumerable extracurriculars and clubs, traditions, and residential life. None of these are possible over Zoom, nor if half the undergraduate population is missing from campus, as suggested in the recently leaked faculty email.
Universities across the United States face the same dilemma Stanford does: is reopening in the fall worth the risk? While some have decided it is not, others like Notre Dame University, Purdue University, Syracuse University, and the University of Arizona have given a resounding yes. Stanford should too.
With a few relatively simple precautions, Stanford could seriously limit the risk to its community while completely reopening in the fall:
- Build the capacity to test, trace, and isolate its population to mitigate the spread of the virus. If any college in the country has the capacity to do this, Stanford does.
- Open on-campus housing and classes for all willing students and faculty. Give students and professors the chance to make an informed decision to either return to campus or remain where they are and continue remote learning or teaching. Stanford could even make students provide documentation showing they are not high-risk before returning to campus. Anyone returning to campus must be tested for Covid-19 and sign a waiver preventing them from suing the university should they become ill or die from Covid-19 on Stanford’s campus. Many students may decide to remain off-campus, thus easing the housing burden.
- Offer hybrid classes, depending on the size of the class or the demographic risk of the professor, and move some classes outdoors to reduce risk of spread. For example, large lectures can be pre-recorded and online access to classes can be given to those off-campus. Such modifications will be necessary no matter what solution Stanford chooses.
- For housing, see if the new graduate housing has room for undergraduates, repurpose non-residential buildings, and find ways for students to live off-campus should the need arise. Allow for roommates, but ensure that everyone has a roommate they know, as friend pairs are more likely to be in contact with the same subset of people on campus. Additionally, to lighten the strain on housing, continue study abroad programs in safe locations and find ways to incentivize students to take the quarter off.
- Limit large gatherings such as concerts (set a flexible maximum at perhaps 150 people), but allow the continuation of the smaller clubs, organizations, and events which make up much of campus life.
- Keep dining halls open but limit capacity, add more outdoor seating, and extend hours to deter crowds. Alternative dining options on campus, such as food trucks, should also be available to diversify options and deter crowds.
- Today the Faculty Senate is voting on whether to start fall quarter earlier and end the quarter at Thanksgiving Break. This is a promising solution to prevent students from traveling across the world and returning with pathogens.
- Stay flexible. Policies can change as the situation changes.
By creating and implementing dynamic and creative solutions, Stanford has a chance to emerge as a leader among universities across the nation and relieve much of the paralyzing fear surrounding Covid-19. Stanford’s own scientists have spoken out against the continuation of strict lockdowns in the U.S. and in favor of schools reopening come the fall. Stanford ought to have faith in its own: its own experts, its own students, and its own ingenuity.
Stanford has the ability to both protect the health and safety of its community while providing a world-class education. It must choose now to do so.