The Corner

Education

Science, Coronavirus, and Notre Dame

University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind. (Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)

A few weeks back, the University of Notre Dame outlined its plan for reopening campus in the fall, detailing the way in which the administration hopes to bring students back to South Bend to resume in-person classes. Like the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities in the U.S., Notre Dame shifted all of this past semester’s classes to online learning immediately after the school’s mid-March break.

The proposed plan will bring students back to campus in August two weeks earlier than usual, cancel the week-long fall break in mid October, and conclude the semester before Thanksgiving. The university has said it plans to conduct orientations for new campus policies due to COVID-19; institute testing protocols, contact tracing, and quarantining as needed; and promote preventive measures, such as hand-washing, social distancing, and some mask wearing.

Notre Dame was one of the first major universities to propose a plan for how it aims to reopen in the fall. Other universities, such as Princeton, have said they’ll wait another month to announce a plan. This contrast has earned Notre Dame some derision, for instance in the Washington Post, where education writer Valerie Straus characterized Notre Dame as “jumping to a decision” but called Princeton’s president “thoughtful” for announcing that he’ll wait to decide.

In today’s New York Times, Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins has an op-ed entitled “Why Science Alone Could Not Tell Us Whether to Reopen Notre Dame,” explaining the thinking behind the reopening plan. Though I am often quick to criticize his administration for its lack of attention to preserving Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, I appreciated several of the points he made on this subject.

He opens by praising the work of Dr. Anthony Fauci but writes that “there are, however, questions that a scientist, speaking strictly as a scientist, cannot answer for us. For questions about moral value — how we ought to decide and act — science can inform our deliberations, but it cannot provide the answer.”

This point often seems to be left out in our debates over how best to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, how soon certain states or regions ought to reopen, and what reopening should look like at different times and in different parts of the country. Some pundits seem to believe that, in crafting their policies, institutions and local officials ought to consider only the views of a certain taskforce or certain set of officials, accepting their preferred policy because the science is settled, so to speak. In this view, the “experts” have the ability to craft a policy response that will serve us all best and necessarily be the best way to solve the complex situation we face.

Fr. Jenkins rightly acknowledges that there is more to the equation than consulting the information made available through science. Medical professionals and scientists are invaluable and can tell us much about how a disease behaves, and they can project a number of situations that might come about depending on how we act, but they can’t offer us a foolproof, one-size-fits-all plan for how a vast country can mitigate the risks and balance the potential harms of responding to a global pandemic.

Here’s more of what Fr. Jenkins writes:

Our decision to return to on-campus classes for the fall semester was guided by three principles that arise from our core university goals. First, we strive to protect the health of our students, faculty, staff and their loved ones. Second, we endeavor to offer an education of the whole person — body, mind and spirit — and we believe that residential life and personal interactions with faculty members and among students are critical to such an education. Finally, we seek to advance human understanding through research, scholarship and creative expression.

If we gave the first principle absolute priority, our decision about reopening would be easy. We would keep everyone away until an effective vaccine was universally available.

However, were we to take that course, we would risk failing to provide the next generation of leaders the education they need and to do the research and scholarship so valuable to our society. How ought these competing risks be weighed? No science, simply as science, can answer that question. It is a moral question in which principles to which we are committed are in tension.

One can disagree with the reopening plan Notre Dame has outlined and its decision to reopen — a decision that other schools have reached, too, and that many others surely will reach before August rolls around — while still acknowledging the truth of what he has written. In a situation as complicated as the one we face, there is no easy, simple, scientific answer offering leaders a roadmap out of crisis. To say otherwise undermines the effort to protect public health and prevent more harm than we’ve already seen.

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