On July 17, Dr. Sten Vermund, Dean of the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH), published a piece outlining his support for in-person teaching this fall. That day, the CDC reported 72,045 new COVID-19 cases in the United States, bringing the total to 3,630,587. Less than two weeks later, that number rose by 16.3%, crossing the 4 million case mark. Against this backdrop, Vermund’s case for in-person teaching is misleading and potentially calamitous.
Vermund organizes his arguments into three categories: managing risk, avoiding risk, and meeting teaching responsibilities. Each fails to adequately consider published evidence and realities that contradict his approach. As newly minted alumni of YSPH, we feel compelled to call upon our training and respond.
Vermund lauds Yale’s risk management plans, which include maintaining six feet of distance between students, mandating face coverings, upgrading ventilation systems, implementing frequent testing and contact tracing, and requiring risk reduction education. He does not mention Yale’s flawed and arguably exploitative plan to manage undergraduate emergencies by deputizing graduate students as “Public Health Coordinators” (public health knowledge is not a prerequisite for the role). Nor does he contend with the weaknesses of the plans he lists.
Research shows that the 6-foot rule is insufficient in enclosed spaces like classrooms where COVID-19 can spread further due to complex air flow patterns. Furthermore, Yale’s updated testing and tracing protocols rely on the Yale Health staff who already provide full-time care for all university affiliates and their families. The protocols, as written, are vague. Details regarding responsibility for processing tests and supplying swabs are undisclosed, as are instructions for faculty, staff, and their families. It remains unclear whether this massive screening program will divert resources from the surrounding community.
And of course, Vermund speaks only about Yale’s preparedness. Many, if not most, schools do not have the resources to implement comparable plans. With a prodigious endowment and manageable undergraduate population, Yale represents a unique case. In one article awaiting peer review, another Yale faculty member describes the logistical, behavioral, and resource challenges associated with proper screening for students. These are challenges that other universities may not be able to address. The New York Times recently published data linking 6,300 cases of COVID-19 to universities, a worrying number considering most fall instruction has not yet begun.
Vermund calls on the federal government to help various educational institutions establish protections for their students and faculty. But he does not appreciate how difficult it would be for disparate institutions to meet identical standards. For example, K-12 schools do not have access to student health facilities and hospital systems as many universities do. Vermund also invokes the notion of “academic service” to describe teachers as essential workers, a troubling characterization for teacher safety: Vermund himself implies that essential workers do not have the freedom to “avoid risk when the risk cannot be managed.”
In the absence of federal protections, it is irresponsible to suggest instructors return on the basis of moral obligation. Teachers should not have to risk illness or death for their students. Forcing those with life threatening conditions back into the classroom unduly burdens an already undercompensated profession. Overcrowding, poor facilities, and teacher shortages are challenges faced daily in the public education system. Neither the Heroes Act nor the HEALS Act would allow for public schools to implement all of the suggested facilities changes in time for a fall reopening, even if the funding were made available tomorrow.
Discussions of academic service and responsibility must not ignore that universities often reside within a wider community. The influx of students returning to New Haven will increase exposure for everyone in the city without offering them the same testing and treatment services guaranteed to those affiliated with Yale. This is antithetical to the tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement, a cause Vermund claims to support, as reopening will place thousands of Black and brown lives in the New Haven community at risk.
In response to criticism, Vermund tweeted that his comfort with classroom teaching was specific to high resource institutions. But his piece, written from a lofty platform and published in a non-Yale media outlet, does not always maintain that distinction. We fear that it will be used to justify short-sighted decisions that put students, teachers, and communities at extreme risk.
Both Yale College and YSPH have planned tuition increases. Meanwhile, colleges and universities in Connecticut, including Yale, have already begun seeking legal protection if students contract COVID-19. The former conveys a business-as-usual approach while the latter tacitly acknowledges the gravity of the pandemic. Those with the power to make consequential decisions should not get to have their cake and eat it too. Ultimately, Dr. Vermund’s optimistic treatment of in-person learning is at odds with the duties of public health policymakers and practitioners: to release guidelines and recommendations in favor of the public’s safety, above all else.
Christina Harden, MPH; Emma Allen, MPH; Adam J. Moore, MPH; and Hijab Khan, MPH.