By Perry Samson
I suspect it’s inevitable that at some point, a student on my campus will be diagnosed with a highly communicable illness, be it the current coronavirus (COVID-19) or another disease. Given the academic institution’s responsibility to protect students and staff, my expectation is that students with a diagnosed disease would be individually quarantined and treated medically. But if the disease was discovered in, say, a dormitory or a specific community, I imagine that more drastic steps would be taken, such as limiting campus transportation and public gatherings and possibly even shuttering classrooms. One can’t help but wonder how such a situation would affect the academic mission of an institution. If the threat prevailed, would semesters be canceled? How would that impact students’ ability to progress through their education? Would the institution need to refund students for their tuition? An epidemic would pose potentially massive disruptions for students, faculty, staff, and the institution.
My experience with the polar vortex may offer insight into how an institution might cope with such a scenario. On January 31, 2019, the midwestern United States experienced a period of extremely cold temperatures and winds that drove wind chills to as low as -57°F in parts of the Midwest. In response, my institution and many other academic institutions in the Midwest canceled classes for two or more days.
I teach an introductory course titled Extreme Weather. It seemed wrong to allow such a teachable moment to pass, so I was determined to conduct class despite the classrooms being off-limits and buildings closed. The challenge was amplified by the fact that I was traveling in Washington, DC, and because the classrooms were closed, the guest lecturer I had planned for the day would not be able to help.