Are we witnessing a preview of fall on America’s college campuses right now?

Comparing situations always leaves you open for criticism. That’s because no two situations are exactly alike.

So, at the risk of being subjected to criticism…

I fear the last few weeks around the U.S. are a precursor to what’s going to happen on America’s college campuses this fall. It’s not a pretty picture.

Much like we’re watching the rolling back of an “open” America this summer, I believe we inevitably will see a rolling back of the “open” campus in the fall. And that’s presuming we ever reach open status.

Whether you like “remote-delivery instruction” will be irrelevant because absent a fundamental shift in attitudes and behaviors starting right now, it will be mandatory.

If I’m right, responsible college and university leaders, and there are many (and almost all of them are operating under ever-present passive-aggressive sniping from inside and outside the campus community), who want their campus open this fall with plenty of face-to-face instruction, are going to be derailed by individuals and groups who won’t believe in or adhere to the guidelines necessary to keep the institution functioning that way.

Let’s start with college students. If America’s young adults can’t act responsibly when they are off campus this summer and with coronavirus numbers exploding all around them, then what makes us think they’ll behave smartly in the fall?

Social distance in a classroom? Avoid large groups? Regularly check their temperature?

Good luck with that.

However, pointing a finger at America’s young adults and insisting they alone are to blame for the acceleration of coronavirus cases in the U.S. and for the opening/closing of the college campus is plain wrong.

Let’s not forget their parents, their aunts and uncles, and their neighbors. As we watch the spike in coronavirus numbers in many states, we see far too many Americans steadfastly refusing to rein in their “right” to a vacation, a party, a drink, or a dinner at a busy restaurant. Put another way, they aren’t going to social distance (which too many seemed dubious about months ago).

The affinity to self over society is crushing the advances that had been made in slowing down coronavirus throughout the United States.

Spin their self-centered actions forward, and far too many adults will remain adamant that contact tracing invades their privacy (which they of course will announce loudly on social media, in what can only be described as sweet irony). They will see mandates to wear masks as communism running rampant. They will reject calls for self-sacrifice as part of a governmental plot to make them docile. Those voices will have a corrosive effect on young adults, who will think ‘if the adults won’t behave, then why should we?’

Next, we can’t forget the criminal absence of leadership from the White House and Republicans all over the land. Ridiculous policies that advocate for “spend and live” without corresponding common sense health warnings are aiding in the ramping up of coronavirus cases in many states. The president is not going to wake up one morning and become a warrior determined to make his people safe. Various Republican governors might, but they gave away their ethical compass when they stood by their dear leader in the initial weeks of this pandemic. Here again, the corrosive effect on young adults will be evident: ‘If our nation’s leaders aren’t doing anything, then things can’t be that bad, right?’

Now, let’s be honest and admit that a whole lot of adults on our college campuses are thinking (and saying) many of the same things the students are.

Combine “let’s party!” with “I’ll do what I damn well please!” with “masks violate my freedom” with “blame the media” with “it’s nothing more than the flu” with the sidelining of legitimate scientific and medical voices and you have America 2020. Unless we make major changes right now, we risk an even greater health catastrophe in the weeks ahead; and we brought this hell upon ourselves.

There’s an important factor we must acknowledge as we view what’s happening in America now and what could happen on its college campuses this fall: Ethical college and university leaders are putting multiples safeguards — however imperfect they might be — in place to make the institution as healthy a place as possible for everyone.

Plexiglass shields alone in classrooms won’t make the coronavirus just disappear, something the president believes will happen. Limiting the number of students in a classroom alone won’t stop the spread of coronavirus. Shifting many classes now to online delivery alone won’t stop the spread of coronavirus. Rejiggering dorm spaces alone won’t stop the spread of coronavirus. Limiting the number of people on campus at any one time alone won’t stop the spread of coronavirus. Adjusting how much fresh air is pumped into buildings alone won’t stop the spread of coronavirus.

However, these efforts lumped together (and with other practical ideas thrown into the mix) could stop the spread of coronavirus if…

…and this is where the system is sure to break down…

…everyone on campus follows them; if the larger society supports them; and if all state and national leaders insist these safeguards be followed.

That means sacrifice. That means planning. That means leadership. That means avoiding social situations. That means constant monitoring of one’s health. That means washing one’s hands multiple times a day. That means staying home when you don’t feel well.

That means putting “we” ahead of “me.”

It also means stopping the nattering negativity infecting conversations about the fall on America’s college and university campuses.

It’s a tall order; and if this summer has taught us anything, it’s shown us that pleas to do the right thing fall on deaf ears in too many places.

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