A shattered red cross symbol is super-imposed over UW Madison's Smart Restart dashboard, which shows a growing percentage of positive tests.

Blaming Students for Systemic Stupidity

by Dayna Long

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s “Smart Restart” is already a disaster, perhaps even sooner than faculty, staff, and some local elected officials predicted. Over the past few weeks, students returned to campus in order to begin their fall semester with a “hybrid” mix of remote and in-person instruction on September 2.  Starting on September 4, Dane County posted a record-breaking 160+ cases of COVID-19 a day for three days in a row – a dramatic jump from the seven-day average of about 40 cases a day. A significant portion of these new cases have been traced to students at UW Madison. 

This is not the least bit surprising given that the same thing has already occurred at colleges all over the country. This is precisely why workers at UW Madison objected to the “Smart Restart” in the first place. But the university plunged ahead, ignoring objections and defying common sense, presumably to rake in piles of student tuition money, which becomes entirely non-refundable only after the first four weeks of classes. Now here we are, waiting until all of the tuition dollars are securely in UW Madison’s grasp so that they’ll end this dangerous charade that has already made all of us significantly less safe than we were three weeks ago. 

As people beyond the campus bubble recognize the growing danger, a low buzz of hostility and resentment towards UW Madison students has begun to pick up. Hand-wringing about college partying, stories of disobedient frats and sororities,  and pictures of packed lines outside of college bars abound on social media. Make no mistake – this reckless activity is actually taking place and it is distressing, not only for the greater community but for the students themselves. While younger people are less likely to die or be hospitalized as a result of COVID-19, the long-term effects of the disease are unknown, and even some of the immediate effects of COVID-19 for survivors are disturbing. But few people actually seem concerned about the students’ health and welfare. It is incorrectly taken for granted that college students can survive COVID-19 and be just fine even as they make the rest of us unsafe. More often than not, the complaints are taking on an air of blame, with the encouragement of university administrators who, after deciding to bring students back, have already publicly admonished students for the outbreak that has followed their return. Just one week into the fall semester, students are the new scapegoats. 

But students aren’t really the ones to blame here. Like so many of the deeply flawed reopening plans that have been rolled out in cities, states, and workplaces, the success of UW Madison’s strategy for bringing students back to campus hinges on people defying their most human impulses and adopting a life of solitude in which their only risky human interactions are those that generate profit. In the case of the University, this means attending in-person classes that necessitate their paying full tuition and living in the dorms. Public Health Madison & Dane County’s entire Forward Dane plan relies on the same general premise. Yes, it is fine to go shopping or go out to eat, and it is fine for shops and restaurants to bring employees back to the workplace. These things are vital to the economy. No, you should not have in-person visits with friends and family at someone else’s home.

Sadly, given the amount of community spread and the low levels of COVID-19 testing in the United States, most in-person interactions are probably ill advised right now, whether they stimulate the economy or just our hearts and minds. But the folks in charge are willing to take the risk! Or rather, they’re willing to subject workers and students to risks to the extent that it will make them money.

This is just another example of how the response to COVID-19 is shaped to fit the logic of capitalism. Activities that generate profits – labor, purchasing goods and services – are approved, but people must limit the non commodified social interactions that would actually enrich their lives and sustain their mental health in order to keep conditions favorable for the profitable activities to continue. Unsurprisingly, humans are not good at living within these confines and restricting their activities to what’s best for business or a University’s bottom line. The inherent contradictions of these guidelines are too obvious. If it’s safe to return to work or to attend class in person, why isn’t it safe to visit with friends and family? Why shouldn’t we also be allowed to take the risk involved in spending time with people we actually want to see? 

It is especially cruel to ask college students to conform to this contradictory logic – and then to punish them for failing. College students are in the prime of their lives when it comes to socializing, not just because they’re at a social age but because they have to be social in order to construct a network in a city where the majority of them did not grow up. Without that network – trapped in their dorm rooms and apartments – students are alone. Their families live elsewhere. Their roommates might be their good friends but they also might be mere acquaintances or even total strangers. Their closest friendships and most valued relationships might have nothing to do with who they live with and who they are now being told to hunker down with for the next two weeks in response to the “Smart Restart’s” predictable failure. 

I have the most sympathy for college freshmen in particular. This fall’s freshmen are the high school seniors whose proms, graduations, and end-of-school festivities were blighted by this pandemic months ago. There was plenty of time for leaders within the federal and state governments to act and plenty of time for local government to get it together when it became clear that both the state and federal government response to COVID-19 was an abject failure. Public health officials could have made the honest evaluation that without resources from the state or the feds for a massive expansion of testing and contact tracing in our community, bringing students back to campus for in-person classes was too dangerous to be advisable. University administrators could have listened to the concerns of faculty, staff, and students and come up with a plan for an all-remote semester with no on-campus housing. They could have been honest with these incoming freshmen about what was actually on offer at UW this year. 

Instead, the very students who have already paid a high personal price due to COVID-19 have been lured to campus by greedy University administrators under the false pretenses of a normal fall semester that was never going to happen. Now, instead of learning remotely from the comfort of their bedrooms at home, taking a gap year, or spending far less money to take online classes at a local community college, freshmen are being charged tens of thousands of dollars to shelter in place in dorm rooms, far from their family and friends, during one of the most tumultuous and unsettling times in recent memory. They are being asked to endure extreme isolation during a period of their lives that many young adults find isolating and anxiety inducing under normal circumstances. It is despicable and shameful that UW Madison has elected to treat them this way. 

It is also unsurprising that many students are choosing to buck these incredibly unfair circumstances and engage in dangerous behavior now that they’re back on campus. All around them, people in positions of authority have failed to deal in honest, logical information. Given the absolute absence of leadership from the federal government on down, students recognize there is no reason to believe this will change for the better any time soon. They are in the middle of a city that has already insisted on getting back to a pretense of normal regardless of safety, where middle-aged couples can be seen meeting up with their friends at restaurants all over town any night of the week. Students are being charged full-price for tuition, the cost of living in the dorms, and for their rent, the benefits of which normally include proximity to other young people for a rich social life. But now the onus is on them to live like hermits in order to protect the community? Sure. 

The individuals who are responsible for this situation – for this outcome, which will have a negative impact on our entire community – are primarily those in charge at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They are the ones who proceeded with this foolish plan in spite of being told repeatedly that it was a terrible idea. They are also the ones who still have the power to do things differently – to adopt the all-virtual “Moral Restart” workers have been asking for. But Public Health Madison & Dane County, which remained silent about the advisability of a “Smart Restart” instead of denouncing it as a major public health risk, is on the hook, too, as are Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and County Executive Joe Parisi, who were also awfully quiet about a plan that was guaranteed to harm the community over which they both preside. Simultaneously, this entire shitshow has been informed by the system we live in, where the relentless pursuit of profit takes the place of any other priority or plan.

We all deserve better than this sickening restart. Yes, even the bozos risking their lives for mediocre mixed drinks at Wandos.  

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