Editorial: College reopening plan offers cautious optimism — and one big risk
How a plan to Fortify Franklin could be unraveled by the students who want to return
The Franklin Staff
Position: Franklin College administrators spent considerable time connecting with students — and putting their faith in them — to craft a reopening plan during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Franklin believes a plan that rests on student buy-in, however, can’t last a whole semester on a campus where one major outbreak could lead to a shutdown.
The Fortify Franklin return to campus plan is no doubt the product of intense scrutiny and debate. Confusion arose at the first town hall meeting administrators held with students Aug. 17, when Franklin College President Kerry Prather noted the several task forces that weighed how to proceed after the college shut down last spring.
Any school that chooses to open this fall is of course taking a risk to public health that could be eliminated if the institution chose to only offer online classes.
That’s because COVID-19 has all but disappeared. While the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned states last month to be ready to distribute a vaccine as early as late October, the number of cases and deaths rise every day. In Indiana, state health officials have detected more than 102,000 cases and counting since the pandemic began. A total of 3,186 Hoosiers have died from the virus as of Thursday.
Some Indiana colleges and universities that opened earlier also experienced outbreaks — many spurred by parties in violation of campus policy — that forced schools from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend to Butler University in Indianapolis to temporarily move classes online once more. Both have now returned to in-person classes.
If Franklin College is to be successful in keeping the campus open, there must be an acknowledgment of the strengths and weaknesses behind the plan to do so. And the primary weakness that endangers the Fortify Franklin plan is obvious as students return to campus for the fall semester: A philosophy that relies almost entirely on student compliance.
As part of the reopening plan, students will have to voluntarily track their symptoms on a new app, Campus Clear, before interacting with some staff and common areas. Prather said how a student responds in the app is their ticket to participating in class, attending school events, and even eating in the Marketplace.
But enforcement varies. While staff at the Marketplace check the app for all students before they can enter and eat, faculty have the freedom to decide when — if at all — checking the app is necessary. Vice President of Academic Affairs Kristin Flora said as a result, some faculty require students to show the app before gaining entry to class, while others do nothing.
Prather said there are two elements that make the app successful: A student’s honesty and their ability to consistently respond to the app every day.
But can students be trusted to be honest? This is an optimistic approach by far in a world where thermometers are being purchased and used to screen guests before entering some restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, and more as the country responds to the pandemic. It is an optimistic approach, certainly, but one that is riddled with risk.
As some have argued at other reopening institutions, it’s an approach like this that, if implemented without student need in mind, will bring students back to a dangerous and unpredictable environment only to blame them when plans go wrong.
The Fortify Franklin plan includes several safety requirements designed to limit COVID-19 spread when students return to campus, including mandatory masks, modified course attendance policies and social distancing. Photo provided by Franklin College.
The college, for example, declined to provide entry testing to all students to understand the baseline number of cases. In Indiana, many major colleges and universities are requiring students to take a COVID-19 test before they can move to their campus residence. It's part of an effort to detect and prevent spread early.
Of course, entry testing isn’t perfect, as Prather made clear. There’s the possibility an entry test could produce false negatives, giving an undue sense of security. And as Prather also said, many key healthcare leaders — the CDC, the state health board, and local health officials in Johnson County — recommend against testing in this way.
But the data is essential, The Franklin believes, to giving students, their families and campus staff an idea of the number of cases. Even if the number isn’t perfect — and it certainly won’t be, as statewide testing has shown — it is a first step to guiding our progress and measuring the effectiveness of the Fortify Franklin plan.
The college did unveil a public dashboard on the first day of class that discloses how many students, faculty and staff have confirmed a positive COVID-19 test. As of Sept. 6, there have been only three known cases on campus to date since reporting began in early August.
But as Franklin College administrators are the first to admit, the small size of the school works to both our advantage and disadvantage when it comes to slowing community spread.
On the positive side, there’s greater opportunity to solicit feedback from students, faculty and staff in a way that’s truly representative of campus needs. And so far, administrators have been more than willing to engage in these conversations through a town hall, private meetings with student organizations and individual check-ins with students.
“It is our first pandemic,” said Andrew Jones, the college’s dean of students and vice president for student development. “While we’ve done our best to be really intentional in planning, we might have gotten something wrong. And so we’re happy to make adjustments if they’re reasonable and still mitigate risk to our students.”
But on the other hand, a single outbreak on campus could spell disaster. It’s feasible to conclude that if one student organization or residence hall were to experience an outbreak, the effect of that outbreak could grow to affect a significant portion of the community.
“Small means potentially more manageable,” Prather said. “But small means a fewer number of people could also cause a bigger problem.”
This risk led Amari Thompson, a Franklin College senior studying political science and business, to elect to finish her fall classes from her home in Avon.
Thompson lives with a medical condition that could lead to a more severe case of COVID-19. When Indiana residents were under a stay-at-home order this spring, for example, she didn’t leave her house. For Thompson, decisions to go out in public still require significant planning.
So when the college offered students like her the opportunity to work remotely rather than jeopardize her health, she took it. Using an application the college sent out before classes began, Thompson coordinated a plan with the campus nurse and her professors.
Thompson said it’s this attention that gave her the assurance the college is taking the pandemic and reopening seriously.
“Be happy we go to a college that is small enough to listen to the voices and concerns of not only the students, but the faculty members,” Thompson said. “Everybody’s voices were heard in this plan.”
Thompson said she also has confidence students will hold themselves accountable, given the closeness of a small community that makes it difficult for rulebreakers to get by. And so far, that’s been the case. Jones said two incidents that would have been in violation of the Fortify Franklin plan were identified early in this semester when community members reported them through an anonymous MyFC form.
Franklin College administrators have succeeded where other schools have not during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve maintained transparency and, most importantly, accountability to the student community they’re charged to protect.
“We don’t want students to be embarrassed or ashamed if they become symptomatic or if they have a positive case,” Jones said. “That’s the result of a virus. That’s not a reflection on an individual student, faculty or staff member.”
The administrators, faculty, staff and student leaders who manage campus are human and have shown clear empathy for student frustration and fear during our first-ever pandemic.
But is every student ready to show the same?
Editor's Note: Editorials reflect the perspective of The Franklin editorial board, which consists of the publication's top editors, on leading issues affecting the Franklin College experience. They are meant to offer informed analysis and respectful insight to campus debate. Questions? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.