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EDITORIAL: Keys to safely return on campus

Rutgers plans to house more students on its campus next semester. In order to do so safely, serious precautions must be taken. – Photo by Rutgers University New Brunswick / Facebook

We have already written editorials about a potential return to campus. As it stands, Rutgers plans to house more students next semester.

“Up to 3,124 students will be able to live in on-campus housing for the Spring 2021 semester … In order to adhere to safety guidelines, students will live in either suite-style or apartment-style housing on any of the five New Brunswick campuses,” according to The Daily Targum back on Oct. 20.

Such a decision to house more students will obviously elicit strong reactions on all sides of the issue. On the one hand, some students may celebrate a pseudo-return to campus. In fact, some may think that even more pupils should be housed. Conversely, plenty of students likely believe that any such return to dorming is a public health threat.

All of these views are valid enough. But the fact is that Rutgers plans to go forward with its updated housing plan — therefore, any efforts to contain the spread and optimize the student experience should be based on that pretense.

Presuming some students come back to campus, as Rutgers states it plans to allow, how do we keep them most safe?

Well, many college administrators feel as if they have a grasp regarding how to squash the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, according to The New York Times.

“But there is also an emerging confidence among at least some college administrators that they have learned much about managing the pandemic on their campuses. Test aggressively. Contact trace assiduously. Maintain mask rules and social distancing. And don't underestimate students’ willingness to obey restrictions,” according to The New York Times.

Therein lies the key. Rutgers has clear financial incentives to bring back students. To act on that incentive in a safe manner, it will be absolutely crucial to test students at least on a weekly basis — additionally, students who feel ill should have instant access to a test, no questions asked.

(Note: Rutgers already says it “currently employs a robust on-campus testing strategy.” The frequency of testing is unclear.)

Contact tracing, as The New York Times piece mentions, will also be crucial. Students who do test positive must be required to report their whereabouts. Transparency being key, students who report who they interacted with should not be disciplined if they are honest about being somewhere they should not have been. 

For instance, if a student is asked where they were by a contact tracer, and they report that they (very stupidly) went to a big fraternity party, they should still not be disciplined. Such repercussions would only dissuade students from telling the truth and impede on accurate contact tracing. 

Enforcing mask rules would be relatively easy. First off, most adults tend to wear masks while out in public, so general compliance is adequate.

“Overall, 65 (percent) of U.S. adults say that they have personally worn a mask in stores or other businesses all or most of the time in the past month, while 15 (percent) say they did this some of the time. Relatively small shares of adults say they hardly ever (9 percent) or never (7 percent) wore a mask in the past month, and 4 (percent) say they have not gone to these types of places,” according to Pew Research Center.

Adults in normal situations — going out shopping — have a propensity to wear the mask. If Rutgers enforces a mask mandate strictly, there is no reason to believe that students will not do so either.

Finally, Rutgers must design a constructive and tangible quarantine process for students who test positive. The administration needs to make sure that students in quarantine are monitored and provided with necessities. 

Rutgers has the entirety of winter break to acquire enough testing kits and detail plans for students who test positive. Work on these contingency plans must start now.

The last thing that should be examined is the state of the pandemic in New Jersey. As with the rest of the nation, COVID-19 cases have been climbing in the Garden State. But there are also reasons to think we could be in a better position by the start of the Spring 2021 semester — cases are tapering off.

“Despite back-to-back record setting days for new coronavirus cases in New Jersey on Thursday and Friday, there have been some indications over the last week that the second-wave surge could be stabilizing and slowing,” according to NJ Advance Media.

While things may be progressing, at least slightly, Rutgers and its students have to exercise responsibility if more students do eventually stay in on-campus housing.

By avoiding crowded events, wearing masks and restricting themselves to a social “bubble” (people who only hang out exclusively with each other) students will keep the on-campus experience alive, and keep resources available for students who need them.

Administrators need to stay on top of testing, contact tracing and enforcing mask mandates. Students must comply by those measures and avoid superspreader situations, like fraternity parties or other mass indoor gatherings.

Not only will any chance at on-campus housing be destroyed by a lack of compliance, but also cases and deaths will rise — and if you shrug that off as if it is no big deal, you do not belong on our campus, even under normal circumstances.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 152nd editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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