Opinion: Campus health is more important than the University’s profit
Safety from COVID-19 is worth more than lost revenue
“I’m sure AU would require masks if they thought we needed them to be safe,” is a sentence I’ve heard countless times when I express concern about coronavirus transmission in class. I’m not sure they would. After moving classes online at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, American University had an estimated loss of over $100 million in revenues and increased costs, according to previous reporting from The Eagle. Financial loss pushed the University to reopen before it was safe. AU chose our money over our health.
The University has returned to pre-pandemic health practices in order to return to pre-pandemic revenue. Local cases of COVID-19 are currently higher than in August 2020, when classes were online and masks were required. The University’s current practices defy the recommendations of health professionals in the face of the XBB.1.5 variant. Virologist Paula Cannon explained in a recent USA Today article that the difference between this variant and previous ones is that this variant is vastly more contagious, and mask-optional policies will almost certainly result in even masked people becoming infected. The Centers for Disease Control tweeted in late December that community protection requires masks in areas of high transmission, such as D.C. AU ignores this warning because online classes and masks come with a financial loss.
For two consecutive semesters, the University started the semester with a mask mandate and soon after repealed it. Uncoincidentally, these announcements were made in the weeks immediately following the period of time in which students can withdraw from classes and receive a refund.
I spent $6,000 withdrawing from my in-person class when the mask mandate was repealed in spring 2022. Now, I desperately try to work out deals with my professors, bring air purifiers to class and leave early when fellow students make the classroom unsafe. I’m counting the days until graduation.
“The Mask Optional policy will remain in place for Spring 2023. [I]f a member of our community asks others to mask when in close contact with one another, they are asked to please treat these requests with respect and give them full consideration,” Bernard Schulz, the project manager for AU’s COVID-19 response, said in an email to me on Jan. 11. In my experience, roughly half of students will not care about the request and gladly bring unprotected COVID-19 to class.
Most variants take two hours and 30 minutes to contract when you are the only one wearing a mask, according to the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. My classes last two hours and 50 minutes. After being denied online classes, the Dean of Students Office instructed me to ask my professors or the Academic Support and Access Center for accommodations. However, my professors’ supervisors would not allow them to require masks or let me attend virtually, and ASAC said they do not provide COVID-19 accommodations.
The decision to repeal the mask mandate was not made out of health consciousness. Schulz has his doctorate in higher education administration and no background in health sciences. The last time coronavirus-related decisions at the University were publicly addressed by a medical professional was March 16, 2020. From then on, our health was placed in the hands of administrators.
“The university is facing [a $27 million financial shortfall] … as a result of the actions required to keep our community safe,” wrote President Sylvia Burwell on May 26, 2020. “We are projecting at least a two-year impact on the university’s finances and operations from COVID-19.”
Almost exactly two years later, on May 23, 2022, AU announced the removal of the mask mandate and the transition to at-home COVID-19 tests. The budget for a safe campus ended exactly when President Burwell said it would.
The administration wrote it could only afford two years worth of “losses in tuition and housing revenue … and impacts on other university operations.” It stands to reason that they reopened unmasked housing and required in-person classes. They need us to spend money on campus.
In September 2020, Burwell announced that online classes would end at the end of July 2021, making the decision based on revenue shortfall rather than the then-unforeseeable rate of COVID-19 cases. That semester, 381 students contracted COVID-19.
Of everyone who has had COVID-19, one in five develop long COVID, according to the CDC. Long COVID can include permanent lung damage, neurological deficits, heart problems, blood clots and more. That’s 76 students, in fall 2021 alone, whose long-term bodily damage was deemed acceptable a year prior due to profit decline.
This winter break brought monstrous COVID-19 rates across the country, and campus will be no different. Reopenings of college campuses are linked to a 37 percent increase in surrounding COVID-19 levels, according to the Public Library of Science. AU downplays the threat of COVID-19 because otherwise the AU and greater D.C. communities would recognize that what they are being asked to sacrifice is more valuable than the University’s lost revenue.
Greta Mauch is a senior in the school of communication. This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Nina Heller. Copy editing by Isabelle Kravis, Leta Lattin, Sarah Clayton and Natasha LaChac.