Reopening schools safely can’t happen without racial equity

Roopika Risam
If being humane is not motivation enough, universities should consider the role of racial equity in their reopening plans.
The recent case of Jason Helms, a professor at Texas Christian University, demonstrates one problem with university procedures. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Helms, the father of a young child with a heart condition, requested online teaching assignments for the fall to reduce the possibility of infecting his child.
The request was denied. Several days later, after bad press followed, TCU relented, granting faculty the right to choose how they would teach their fall courses.
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But this alarming trend of universities trying to force faculty into classrooms and staff onto campus in the midst of a global pandemic continues. Each day, universities announce outlandish proposals: classes in tents, classes ending before Thanksgiving and pledges for students to sign agreeing not to party. As outbreaks tied to bars in college towns like East Lansing, Michigan, and Columbia, South Carolina and the current surge in Covid-19 cases among young people suggest, these plans are wildly optimistic about the self-discipline of college students.
And yet, universities persist, many motivated by fear of losing tuition dollars. As a colleague at an elite private university told me, “Students are paying $70,000 a year. We’re offering them in-person instruction.”
While universities like my own and the California State University system have opted for online teaching, many persist with plans for face-to-face instruction. If more universities can’t be convinced by public health data, they should consider racial equity.
As a professor and woman of color at a public university with one of the most diverse and vulnerable student populations in the state, I have seen the struggles my students and colleagues experience. From courses that do not reflect our students’ experiences to the burden of being the few employees of color on campus, systemic racism thrives in predominantly white universities.
Amid the protests and calls for change following George Floyd’s killing, universities have been quick to release statements demonstrating their commitments to racial justice. But at a moment when Black, brown, and Indigenous communities are bearing the brunt of the pandemic, why doesn’t the commitment to equity extend to their safety as well?
Universities in the US have a long history of complicity with enslavement of Black people and theft of land from Indigenous people. Recent statements on anti-Black racism and the removal of names and statues of enslavers and racists from buildings and schools suggest intent to undo systemic racism. But these are not just legacies of the past — they’re defining the present.
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College sports are a notorious site of racial inequities in colleges. Major NCAA football programs in the SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12 were among the first to open practice facilities, and many are located in states that have lax mitigation protocols and currently are experiencing large spikes in Covid-19 cases. The close proximity of football puts athletes at high risk of both contracting and spreading the virus on their campuses and at away games. These predominantly white universities are already seeing positive cases, foreshadowing the effects of Covid-19 on university communities. Conversely, historically Black colleges and universities like Morehouse College have led the way in canceling fall sports.
University employees of color are at high risk as well. While research shows that administrators, tenure-line faculty and librarians at universities are overwhelmingly white, Black, brown, and Indigenous people are relatively better represented in staff positions and among service employees. These higher-risk roles expose them to Covid-19.
Student services staff, dining service employees and maintenance workers are among the most vulnerable essential employees at universities, and they’re also the most diverse employee populations at universities. But universities aren’t looking out for them.
For example, in a recent letter outlining the University of Maryland’s plans for fall posted on the university’s web site, President Wallace D. Loh begins by acknowledging racial inequities and stating that he is “mindful of the disparate impacts” of Covid-19 but then goes on to describe plans to re-populate campus for face-to-face instruction, with no accounting of those “disparate impacts.”
If universities are committed to racial justice and to doing the work of undoing systemic racism, they must do more to protect these students and workers of color.
While not all courses lend themselves to online teaching, the vast majority do. The only responsible choice for universities is to maximize online course options and to maintain de-densified campuses. Needlessly shepherding students into classrooms, campus offices and residence and dining halls and onto athletic fields raises the risk of spreading Covid-19 on campus and endangers students and workers of color. But, most critically, universities need to allow faculty and staff to choose online teaching and remote work options if they are the safest choices for themselves, their families and their communities.
If, in fact, Black Lives Matter to universities, they should protect their most vulnerable students and employees — or their commitments to equality are nothing more than empty statements.