Philly’s coronavirus response

Opinion: Temple’s plan for on-campus learning puts North Philly neighbors at risk

Hygiene theater might make classrooms safer, but what about the community?

The new Charles Library on Temple University's main campus in North Philadelphia

The new Charles Library on Temple University's main campus in North Philadelphia

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

I’m a Temple lifer, as they say. I’m in my seventh year of schooling here, currently as a student at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine. I love Temple, so I write with great consternation as the university barrels forward with a reopening plan that seems destined to go awry.

The administration has decided to welcome students back to campus for the fall semester. At the medical school, that begins less than one week from today.

We’ve been given assurances every effort has been made to follow state, local, and federal safety guidelines. There’s updated layouts with reduced capacity for classrooms and lecture halls to ensure physical distance, masking is required in all buildings, and there will be temperature screening, among other key measures.

I don’t doubt these steps will meaningfully reduce the risk of viral transmission on campus. But what happens off campus?

Though Philadelphia is in a (modified) “Green” phase of reopening, we can’t have a false sense of security that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is past us. Our nation still has daily caseloads, hospitalizations, and deaths that would represent enormous spikes in most other countries. Philadelphia and its suburban counties have been improving, with the total number of deaths mercifully dropping to only a handful per day across the area.

For comparison, that puts the Delaware Valley on the same level as Germany with regard to lives lost. Not Berlin, Frankfort, or Munich — our region’s coronavirus death count is the same as all of Germany, pop. 83,000,000.

The desire evinced by some to stroll through reopening reflects the unseriousness of our country’s approach to the virus from the start. Political machinations, starting at the top and trickling downward, have constrained our public health system’s ability to execute a coherent response. Even public officials who have readily embraced the advice of their health departments face political pressure to pare back distancing regulations. This leads us to take half-measure after half-measure as we muddle through with COVID metrics that have snapped other countries back to strict lockdown. We open up when nothing has changed, retrofitting our targets as needed, lurching towards a semi-open, semi-masked, semi-sensible reality.

While Temple puts on the finest hygiene theater across its campus, it’s foolish to assume the return of students to North Philadelphia isn’t bringing a massive dose of exogenous risk to the communities bordering our school.

I don’t single out college students or young adults as particularly unlikely to abide by social distancing protocols. Indeed the near-universal masking at recent racial justice protests have demonstrated many young people are committed to such measures.

Rather, it’s the fact that any activity resulting in greater interaction between people — like, say, several thousand students moving back to an area with one major grocery store, or beginning to regularly ride public transit — will increase the risk of transmission.

The bill for all this is unlikely to come due for Temple students themselves, or, by extension, for the university itself. With the exception of some who may have personal or familial health concerns, undergraduate and graduate students are generally young and healthy. However, experience proves the virus can still debilitate young, healthy people; that alone should be enough to give the university pause.

It’s the people Temple considers neighbors (though the feeling is often not mutual) who are most likely to suffer — all so college students can study fruit flies and discuss Jane Jacobs in person.

Due to decades of oppression, the communities that Temple’s Philadelphia campuses exist within have disproportionately borne the brunt of COVID. These are the homes of essential workers, of multi-generational families, and of many at high risk due to years of neglect by our healthcare system.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask that the university advocate for and protect its neighbors. It doesn’t seem unfair to ask that Temple would take steps beyond the meager expectations set forth by a nation that hasn’t even come close to combating this pandemic effectively. It seems that a medical school, of all places, would stress the physical health of a neighborhood over their own financial health.

There is supposedly a carefully laid plan, and the university says it’s doing all it can to protect the community. And if it goes awry, what’s one more affront to North Philly?