As we reopen in spite of an ongoing pandemic, are in-person classes too much of a risk?

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This is a graph of cumulative deaths related to COVID-19 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overlaying a photo of the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs.

This semester, UNLV has reopened in-person classes, welcoming students and staff back onto campus. However, is this the right move amid an ongoing pandemic? A majority of students certainly benefit from in-person learning, yet most teachers and students never knew remote learning was a truly viable option until they were forced into it. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is active. Lives are destroyed and lost to it everyday. 

According to the Center for Disease Control, Clark County is a hotspot for community transmission. We’ve had over 8,000 cases and 128 deaths between Aug. 27 – Sept. 2

It’s important to remember that this isn’t just a figure. It’s the number of people who have died this week as a result of contracting this disease, one that we can avoid spreading by staying at home as much as possible.

Previously, this “stay-at-home” learning was facilitated for students and staff by UNLV’s campus opening up at only 25 percent in-person capacity. Services and classes were moved online as much as possible, and students could continue advancing academically from the safety and comfort of home.

Currently, 60 percent of classes at UNLV are held on-campus, and 40 percent are offered remotely. A normal semester would offer about 10 percent of classes remotely, but due to this continuing pandemic, less than half are now online. 

However, even 60 percent of in-person classes may be too much at the moment. Having so many students in close quarters throughout hallways, classrooms and other public spaces may be a recipe for yet another serious outbreak.

On paper, it seems to be going great: UNLV requires masks to be worn by everyone on campus, requests social distancing and has increased sanitation efforts. Despite this, with the sheer volume of people on campus, it has not been working out that way. 

There’s not enough room in classes for students to keep distance, public spaces on campus lack the capacity to follow CDC guidelines and the rise in infections and hospitalizations are affecting younger people, as well. Overall, it feels like we’re collectively attempting to return to the normal we knew before the pandemic, but the pandemic is still here, and still dangerous.

As of Aug. 20, the Nevada State Board of Health will mandate a COVID-19 vaccination for NSHE students in order to enroll in the spring semester, but that has no bearing for the present fall semester, which also requires swift action. 

Cases and hospitalizations are expected to rise even further in October as temperatures lower again. Variant strains of COVID-19 develop further with every infection, and vaccines are not 100 percent effective. We already have more infectious variants, such as the delta strain, to worry abou. The stakes of a stronger, more vaccine-resistant strain developing could be disastrous to our community and the world at large.

Every unnecessary risk we take may end up extending the pandemic and may impact countless more lives. When we’ve already proven that we have the capacity to hold classes remotely, why not embrace that? The pandemic has not yet ended, and there’s nothing to be gained by pretending it has.

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