If University of Chicago students hoped for one thing this upcoming year, it’s that we would be able to go to college without being subjected to never-ending rules, regulations, and complications of daily life. After all, we’ve done everything we were told would defeat the virus—attend remote classes for an entire year, get fully vaccinated, wear masks indoors—without complaint. So it came to the frustration of so many of us when the administration announced on December 23 that the start of Winter Quarter would be delayed by a full week and that a “remote-only instructional format” would occur for the Quarter’s first two weeks.
This decision came in response to what the university describes as an anticipated “peak of Omicron infections.” But if this prediction is indeed accurate, what should be of concern isn’t whether students will be infected (after all, we’re not worried about whether students will be infected by other illnesses, such as the common cold) but whether the adverse health effects of Omicron on college students are severe enough to justify a move to virtual classes. Is that the case?
Perhaps the best answer to that question can be found in an environment with a virtually identical population makeup to ours: Cornell University. Just last week, more than 900 students there tested positive for Omicron, and yet not a single one exhibited severe illness.
Early studies corroborate this observation: a South African assessment into clinical severity found that Omicron was 80% less likely to lead to hospitalization than the Delta variant, and two separate studies from England found a smaller yet still significant difference in likelihood of hospitalization between the two variants.
Regardless of how large the difference actually is, the data so far is clear: Omicron is significantly less dangerous than Delta. So why didn’t UChicago require classes to be virtual in response to the more dangerous Delta, which original vaccines failed to provide complete protection from?
The blatantly unscientific nature of the recent announcement doesn’t stop there. If UChicago admits “that there will still be high numbers of positive cases of COVID-19 among our students and employees once we resume in person on January 24,” what’s even the point of any of these measures, especially the booster shot mandate? Since the university appears to only be concerned with the presence of cases rather than the actual severity of symptoms, its concerns will still exist despite mandatory booster shots, because the transmission of Omicron isn’t entirely prevented in fully vaccinated people and the effectiveness of a booster shot is expected to wane within just 10 weeks.
Again, what drove universities like Cornell, Princeton, and ours to go virtual wasn’t the seriousness of cases but merely the thought that students were, or in our case could be, infected with the virus.
The administration might attempt to refute this point by noting that the purpose of a booster shot mandate is to protect those who are most likely to be harmed by coronavirus: those who have comorbidities and are immuno-compromised, for instance. We must consider, though, that these students are also at a higher risk of being harmed by the flu and yet the university doesn’t require any students to get the flu shot. In fact, their pre-existing health complications make them more likely to be severely ill from any virus, but we’ve never been sent to fully remote instruction before this pandemic.
Most importantly, this purported concern is completely undermined by the fact that the university specifically, and uncharacteristically, exempts more than 9,400 UChicago hospital employees, who regularly interact with sick and immuno-compromised patients, from the booster mandate. Upon asking UChicago for an explanation, we were told that the exemption is due to “the increasingly critical patient-care demand caused by the pandemic, and the staffing challenges faced by hospitals in Chicago and across the country.” In other words, the university fears essential hospital employees will refuse to get a booster shot and quit in response, which would ultimately result in a decrease in operations and, therefore, a decrease in profits.
It’s clear UChicago doesn’t truly fear a large number of unvaccinated people being on campus for public health reasons, even if those people, under the university’s logic, ironically need a booster shot most. This is simply about who has the most power in swaying the university’s decisions. And right now, students have none.
But that doesn’t have to be the case forever: the moment is now for us to stop slavishly complying with every unnecessary and unjustifiable measure and to boldly demand an end to the administration’s total idiocy. It’s time for us to accept what once sounded like a conspiracy theory as a very likely reality: if we remain silent, this will truly never end.
Interestingly, this belief appears to be becoming more and more common among students. Head over to UChicago’s subreddit—certainly not a bastion of conservative thought—and observe the surprising shift in dialogue since UChicago announced changes to Winter Quarter.
You won’t see loyal proponents, one after another, of ‘trusting the science’ or countless condemnations of ‘ignorant conspiracy theorists’ (in fact, the only account that did argue such a viewpoint received more than 40 net downvotes). Instead, you see more than 100 students, all with varying political beliefs, rightfully expressing anger over these cruel and idiotic measures.
Elsewhere online, a petition against moving to fully remote learning has gained steam, accurately asserting that “the significant damage to student mental health and capacity to learn caused by isolation and online school far outweighs the near minuscule risks to the vaccinated and boosted from the Omicron variant.” It’s a big step in the right direction, and we strongly urge every student to sign it. Remarkably, it seems as though within just one day our peers have been dramatically awakened to the reality of our situation.
But let’s be clear: this must not be a political issue. Our administration, under the false auspices of science, is undermining the interests and voices of its students—students who worked tirelessly in high school to be admitted to a university of such standing and are spending upwards of $80,000 a year to attend. Because of these recent decisions, internship plans are likely to be disrupted; students’ academic performance may be hindered due to classes going virtual; and international students will almost certainly have difficulty with travel restrictions due to the new changes to the academic calendar. On top of that, we’re still expected to pay the exact same price of tuition, despite the quality of our academic experience greatly deteriorating.
Above all, we students deserve fully in-person instruction, face-to-face with our peers—not locked away in a bedroom like obedient subjects of some dystopian social experiment. Even after complying with every order demanded of us for more than a year, we find ourselves in the same circumstances we started in. We don’t even receive a guarantee that this situation will only be for two weeks, and not three, or four, or the rest of the year, or longer. We’ve seen this before.
Importantly, we cannot only go halfway and criticize just the one-week delay of the start of Winter Quarter, as this (second) widely-circulating petition—as well-intentioned as it is—does. We encourage you to support that initiative too, but if we want to see a true return to pre-COVID-19 times, we must oppose the very foundation of UChicago’s decrees: the misconception that the Omicron variant poses a severe health risk to students, and that its purported danger justifies a dramatic reduction of the quality of our education that we pay so much for in time, money, and effort. That notion is demonstrably untrue, and we cannot be afraid of speaking out about the dishonesty and stupidity of such a claim.
Enough with this. If you’re content with uncertainty over whether your classes will be in-person, permanent mask-wearing, routine vaccine injections, and serious doubt that this hyper-anxious period will ever conclude, then please, remain silent. But if you’re sick and tired of all of this, it’s time to speak up.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the authors, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.