President Struppa, the Time Has Come to Open Our Classrooms

Before COVID-19, Chapman University students walk in front of the historic Smith Hall, which houses the Psychology Department

By Kate Robinson

It was another day of monotonous discussions in my English class last Thursday morning. We were talking about societal norms, but I could think of nothing other than clicking the red “leave this meeting” button on my computer and crawling back into bed. 

With a mere five minutes remaining, my professor asked the question that pulled me back to reality, the question I had been waiting to hear all year: “Who is thinking about coming back to in-person classes following spring break?” 

Just a few weeks ago, Chapman University announced that as long as COVID-19 numbers remain low and health authorities approve, we would begin hybrid and in-person instruction on Monday, March 29. After months of little hope, I was finally on the threshold of walking into my first college classroom. Or so I thought. 

My professor proceeded to say, “We’ll see what happens. Chapman’s administration isn’t telling us too much right now, so things could definitely change.” I climbed back into bed feeling unsure and very skeptical. After all, the administration has played this game one too many times before. 

It all started last year in April with university president Daniele Struppa confidently telling reporters that Chapman, because of its smaller size, would be able to achieve at least some level of in-person instruction in the fall. In mid-May, he even told CBS Los Angeles that “it’s very possible that some classes will be held outside on the football field or other outdoor spaces.” By summer, “in person” had changed to “hybrid,” and by August, school was still completely online. 

Looking back, I wish Chapman had exhibited transparency, like some of the larger state schools in the area, instead of stringing us along with false promises about in-person classes. The weekly emails from the Office of the Provost excitedly told the Chapman community that it is “looking forward to being together again in the fall.” Residence Life pushed incoming students, such as myself, to fill out the dorm roommate questionnaire, and the Chapman administration launched the “CU Safely Back” plan, a set of guidelines put into place last summer, which aimed to decrease the spread of COVID-19 on campus. All of that meant absolutely nothing. 

The only part of this ludicrous talk that remains constant is the “CU Safely Back,” with its advice to wear masks on campus and not congregate in large groups. It has yet to guide us to victory. 

Do not get me wrong. The crux of the plan and its requirements make sense if we are allowed to begin hybrid or in-person instruction. With so many people accessing campus and filtering in and out of classrooms, of course it is understandable for COVID-19 screenings to be filled out daily, for faculty and staff to be tested weekly, and for temperatures to be checked upon entering a classroom. But what is the point of doing this when Chapman will not even allow us to step foot into one? 

And now, with a vaccine out and many professors protected, what is the point of a never-ending university closure? We are a mere microcosm of the state we represent, and California, like Chapman, is in a significantly different situation than Florida – a state with a radically different approach but better outcome than California. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed some of the strictest lockdowns in the country, completely shutting down the economy, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held off, initially keeping child-care facilities, construction sites, hotels, and beaches open.  Now, the state is functioning close to normal, with businesses, schools, and amusement parks open.

Gov. DeSantis was mocked nationwide for the past year, but his hands-off approach to handling the virus in the Sunshine State has actually proven to be way more successful than Gov. Newsom’s shutdown strategy. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “Florida’s [COVID-19] death rate among seniors is about 20 percent lower than California’s” (even though Florida’s elderly population makes up a larger share of its state). And, of the new cases reported between Nov. 1 and Feb. 28, “there were 6.4 new cases in California per 100 people, and only 5 in Florida.” 

For colleges and universities across the country, a Governor DeSantis-type of approach is the way to go. 

According to a New York Times article, “More than 530,000 cases have been reported since the beginning of the pandemic [for colleges and universities combined].” Of this number, there have been only about 100 deaths, with the vast majority being in 2020 and involving mostly employees. 

Lives lost are obviously unacceptable and tragic, but if Chapman is truly fearful of students dying – and if that is the reason the administration is keeping us from returning to campus full time – then it would surely be more concerned about the estimated 1,519 college students who are killed every year nationwide due to alcohol-related injuries and accidents. Under Chapman’s logic, the student body should be banned from consuming alcohol. 

Chapman needs to understand that, even with the vaccine, an estimated 70 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated in order for herd immunity to take place. That’s 248 million people who have to get vaccinated, or COVID-19 itself, in the United States. Probably not happening anytime soon. 

Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not suddenly going to disappear. Students are still going to contract the virus in the months and years to come, so every time this happens, are we suddenly going to have to shut down campus? Right now, Chapman is setting a dangerous precedent for this to be the case. 

For example, at the start of the spring semester, the school had an on-campus positivity rate of less than 1 percent, and even after all of the Greek Bid Day parties that occurred two weeks ago (with Instagram accounts to prove it), we currently only have one positive case on the March 8 weekly COVID-19 dashboard

How much longer do we need to wait until Chapman University can fully commit to in-person instruction, without following it up with “we’re listening to our local health authorities and the numbers aren’t looking good?” Chapman is a private university and should exercise its flexibility in its decision making. And the Chapman community is made up of strong young adults who have the ability to think for themselves. It is a shame that the administration is incapable of recognizing this. 

So, please, President Struppa, the time has come to open our classrooms. We understand the mitigation strategies and the inherent risks of COVID-19. Professors have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

We have completed the online modules that teach us how to wash our hands and wear a mask. We have spent a year on Zoom classes. We have sacrificed athletic seasons and graduations. We have missed meeting new friends. We have selflessly given up a year of important and crucial development, only to be led on, with, apparently, no end in sight. 

Allow our classroom doors to stand wide open, regardless of how many cases are in the school, county, state, or country. If someone feels uncomfortable about returning, then online is still an option, and can be, for years to come. For the rest of us, we believe the benefits of going to school outweigh the risks.

Please trust us to make a decision that is right for ourselves and our families, and if you are going to continue controlling the means of our education, then Chapman University will no longer be a place where “Anything is Imaginable.”

Ms. Robinson is a freshman at Chapman University majoring in Strategic & Corporate Communication. This opinion piece is part of a running column written by Robinson.

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