Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 20, 2020

Five weeks of radio silence during a pandemic is unacceptable

Hopkins must reevaluate how it communicates with its students

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD | August 8, 2020

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“Maybe what we have to be doing is communicating more effectively why we haven’t made a decision, what the factors are that are going to go into that decision,” University President Ronald J. Daniels said in an interview with The News-Letter at the end of April. “Maybe that’s a way to deal with this new normal of pretty profound uncertainty across a number of our operations.”

Maybe? Definitely. Daniels had suggested that, going forward, administrators might communicate with students while they were in the process of making a decision, instead of only after reaching one. Yet on August 6, after over a month of silence, Daniels and other University leaders announced that Hopkins would be online-only for the fall semester.

To be clear, we do not condemn this decision; it was the responsible one to make. As the email noted, the daily rate of new coronavirus (COVID-19) infections in Baltimore has almost tripled since the end of June, and over 30 percent of undergraduates come from states that are COVID-19 hot spots. It would have been unsafe to bring students back to campus.

Yet we were told to expect a final plan in mid-July. It was the administration’s duty to explain that there would be a delay because of spikes in COVID-19 cases and that, as a result, we might need to go online-only. We would not have blamed Hopkins; we would have blamed the federal government’s response to an uptick in cases, we would have acknowledged the pandemic’s unpredictability and we would have admired the University’s transparency. 

Instead, students were left to conclude that Hopkins was preparing socially distanced study spaces, acquiring COVID-19 tests and formulating quarantine protocols. It was easy to presume that, as a leading public health institution, Hopkins was working hard to adapt its comprehensive draft plan to ensure a safe return to campus. 

On Thursday, rumors spread that an announcement would come later that day, a dismal flashback to when Hopkins first announced five months ago that it was canceling in-person classes. Confusion and anxiety soared as more and more students saw that the Coronavirus Information website had been updated — over an hour before the official announcement arrived. 

The administration’s communication issues serve only to exacerbate the burdens it attempts to address. We commend the University for telling us at the beginning of June to expect a draft plan for reopening by the end of the month. However, this almost felt like a public relations move to shift the conversation to the possibility of in-person academic instruction and student life. Indeed, the announcement came as the University was facing backlash over its response to Black Lives Matter protests and its continued plans to implement a private police force.

As we saw with its slowness to declare its solidarity with the Black community and acknowledge its contributions to structural racism in Baltimore, the University cares more about its image than the needs and fears of its constituents. Hopkins advertises its roadmaps to promote diversity and inclusion, but refuses to more seriously reckon with its history of inequity. Hopkins tells us when it has timelines for reopening, but refuses to admit when circumstances evolve out of its control. This lack of basic communication etiquette prompted students to sign now-useless leases and purchase unneeded plane tickets to Baltimore. 

Nevertheless, Hopkins has now provided us with a detailed plan that we can look to with at least some degree of confidence and comprehension. We can now collectively begin to accept that, this year, Hopkins expects us to focus on mitigating the pandemic, not living out the “undergraduate experience.” No freshman wants to debut their college career in their childhood bedroom, and no senior wants to spend their last year physically separated from the friends and community they have grown to love over the past three years.

But the University realized, as students should too, that it is the responsibility of healthy, low-risk individuals to stay at home. Across the country, young adults have been increasingly responsible for the spread of COVID-19. Bringing students to campus would jeopardize the health of older professors and immunocompromised students. It would also jeopardize the health of the University’s predominantly Black sanitation and dining staff and the health of Baltimore’s predominantly Black residents, who, due to structural racism, are at a higher risk for COVID-19 complications and death.

Additionally, this plan acknowledges both the financial and emotional hardships that come with online learning. Students will have the opportunity to opt out of Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) grades, except in a few designated courses. This decision reflects that the administration is taking inequity in students’ access to resources into account.

Likewise, by reducing tuition by ten percent and offering to maintain student employment virtually, the University is helping to carry some of the heavy burden that has been resting on students’ shoulders for the past five months.

The plan acknowledges the incredible financial strain that many students are experiencing, particularly those who have signed obsolete leases and those who rely on their on-campus jobs for income. We applaud the University for offering support to students who demonstrate hardship related to maintaining housing or other consequences of staying home for the semester, regardless of whether or not they qualify for need-based financial aid.

But we remember last spring, when administrators similarly promised to offer University housing to individuals with demonstrated hardship. Many students experiencing hardship, however, were denied campus housing. We urge the Office of Student Outreach & Support to act with more consideration and generosity this fall.

Furthermore, students who signed a lease but wish to stay at home now have only until August 12 at 9 a.m. to request additional aid. This policy gives families less than a week to figure out their finances and plans for the entire semester. 

None of this was directly communicated to students in the University’s announcement. It wasn’t until the Student Government Association published these details that these students knew that they could receive aid. We should not have to continually scourge the Hopkins website or depend upon a student-run organization to receive such basic and vital information. 

If administrators are making such unprecedented efforts to assist its students, but lack the competence to effectively communicate these efforts to the student body, are they helping us to their fullest ability?

Students have adapted to this isolating pandemic by utilizing new systems to remain in touch with peers and professors, to collaborate with coworkers and employers. We have honed our communication skills in unprecedented ways. As a multi-billion dollar corporation, Hopkins certainly has the resources to do the same.

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