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As a University Spokesman, Can I Promote a Reopening Plan I Question?

As a University Spokesman, Can I Promote a Reopening Plan I
Question? 1

I am a communications director at a large public university. The university, like most in the nation, intends to bring all students, faculty and staff together for the fall semester. Because bringing together 40,000-plus people from all around the country is the opposite of good public-health policy during a pandemic, I believe that the institution is placing financial concerns ahead of students’ and employees’ health and safety. My job involves communicating to our community that it will all be OK, but I have very serious doubts about that. Is it unethical to continue in my job? Name Withheld

How and whether universities can safely resume residential life and in-person education is a complicated matter, with no one-size-fits-all answer. At Vassar, where the college president is a public-health scholar, students were required to be cleared by a coronavirus test shortly before they arrived on campus and are to be tested at intervals thereafter. The college has invested in filtration systems for ventilation and an app to support contact tracing; it has established strict limits on room capacity and building density, along with the usual protocols about face masks, hand hygiene and social distancing. But it’s also a small, somewhat isolated college on a thousand acres — a bubble of sorts.

At Yale, a much larger institution that’s layered into a broader urban community, students are to be tested twice a week, with results available within 24 to 36 hours. Although a negative test result doesn’t guarantee that you’re not infected — false negatives aren’t uncommon — they’re a pretty reliable indicator that you’re not infectious, or weren’t when you took the test. (Speedy results are critical.) Students face being excluded from campus if they violate the behavioral rules. Even so, the bulk of classes will be conducted remotely. Similar protocols are being implemented at Colby College, Brandeis, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and many other places.

Will less stringent measures suffice? The experiences of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Iowa — to mention just some universities where Covid-19 clusters have recently emerged — illustrate the dangers. U.N.C. has shifted from in-person instruction to remote learning and is further reducing residential density. Notre Dame at least temporarily suspended in-person classes. And it won’t do to simply put the blame on student misbehavior; institutions must anticipate the possibility of such lapses, taking measures to discourage them and, failing that, to contain their consequences.

All back-to-campus plans should have been informed by experts in public health and facilities management and prepared in consultation with the various stakeholders — not just the students and faculty of a university but also the staff members (or their union representatives) and the surrounding community. What about your own university’s plans?

Let me be clear: You must not misrepresent the situation on your campus, and I’m assuming you haven’t been asked to do so. (If you have, there should be whistle-blower channels you can turn to.) I also assume that the administration has consulted with a range of experts to develop a set of policies for managing the risks. You’re concerned that, for financial reasons, the administration isn’t following what experts would consider the wisest course of action. Why not ask, for the purposes of doing your job, to speak to the relevant experts, and so ensure the accuracy of what you say?

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My partner and I live in separate homes about two hours from each other. My partner is a faculty member in one state, and I am a counselor in a bordering state. Each of us will start working again at our respective campuses next month. We typically visit each other two or three times a month. However, my partner will most likely be exposed to more students than I will. I wonder if it’s ethical for us to see each other while we’re working at our campuses. We are supposed to be tested for the coronavirus before we return to campus and submit daily health checks online. I’m not confident in these measures. Yet I can’t bear the thought of not seeing my partner for a semester, as happened in the spring when my partner decided to quarantine for months with family in another state to take care of an elderly family member. What’s the responsible thing to do? Name Withheld

You lack confidence in the measures these two campuses are taking, and that’s understandable. Because many young people who have been infected by the virus are asymptomatic, there’s no substitute for the regular screening of all students. So let’s figure that you each face some risk of exposure, especially your partner. The best way to assess that risk is to see what happens on your campuses in terms of known cases of infection, rates of positive tests and the like. My first piece of advice, then, is to wait until the semester has been underway for a while to find out how much transmission has been detected.

One ethical consideration here has to do with your obligations to your respective schools. As long as you each do everything you’re asked — and adhere to the usual precautions — you are doing your fair share in the collective effort to control the contagion.

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There’s another consideration. Is your partner still in contact with the elderly family member? Research suggests that the infection fatality rate is hundreds of times as high among people over 65 as it is among those under 35. It’s probably best, then, if your partner doesn’t visit this elderly relative until after being away from campus for a while.

As for you and your partner, the question is whether each of you has been able to exercise the individual precautions that can prevent exposure. If you’ve conscientiously done so, there’s no reason you can’t get together. Hospital workers still come home to loved ones, after all. Even in situations that pose risk of exposure, the correct protocols, correctly performed, can keep us relatively safe.

A friend of my son’s says she is being physically and emotionally abused by her parents. She doesn’t want Child Protective Services involved, because she fears that her much younger sibling would grow up in foster care. My son is asking if we can shelter this girl while she hides from her parents until later this year, when she turns 18. Is being a runaway (and staying with my family or another) better than foster care or abuse, if those are her options? I have no legal way to protect her. And if I’m being honest, I find myself balking at the thought of hiding a child from her parents, even though the child is being hurt. I can keep her safe for a short time, but then what?

I don’t know the girl or her parents at all. Name Withheld

Let’s assume that the account provided by your son’s friend is accurate and that what’s going on would indeed lead Child Protective Services to conclude that she was being raised by unfit parents. The first thing to discuss with her is why she nonetheless considers her parents to be fit parents for her younger sibling. Even if you’re convinced that she’s right about this, you might still think that C.P.S. would be best suited to make this assessment. Nor do you have to be a lawyer to wonder how wise it is to have someone else’s minor child come live with you without parental consent. There are organizations that specialize in looking after runaway (and thrown-away) teenagers and may have experience in dealing with the issues here. I’d help her contact one of them.

My nephew has four children with two women, one of whom he lives with. He has no contact with the two oldest children aside from the court-mandated payments he sporadically makes. Although the nephew has a full-time job, the two mothers qualify for, and use, federal assistance. The family has talked to them, kindly, about the long-term cost of children and the importance of birth control. It falls on deaf ears. The two contact me only when they need money. They often ask other family members for money too. I live on a strict fixed income, but I don’t want the children to suffer, so I’ve provided occasional diapers, formula and cash. The most recent baby, in my mind, is the straw that broke the camel’s back. I feel that the family’s providing them money or baby supplies has left them with a false sense that they can afford more children. I feel so sorry for the kids, but I don’t think I can keep giving them money or supplies. Is this OK? Name Withheld

There are times when helping someone in a bad situation encourages people to put others in that bad situation. (You pay ransom to save the hostage at the cost of encouraging further hostage-taking.)

People shouldn’t have children on the assumption that they may impose the costs of their offsprings’ maintenance on others. You’re morally free, then, to forgo providing assistance, especially given that you have limited resources. There’s a slight chance that these parents will take the family’s message seriously if they’re warned that assistance — beyond that provided by the state — can no longer be taken for granted if they have more children. You and your kin might want to make this clear. And please urge your nephew to take his legal obligations seriously too.

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