Guest Commentary by John Sherman: The Collective Failure of Educational Institutions in Boston to Assess the Risk of Transmission to the Community is a Scandal

In this guest commentary, attorney John Sherman refutes the argument that holding in-person classes is justified because the current rate of COVID infection is low and if it rises, we can just revert to online classes. John Sherman is an attorney with expertise in business and human rights. He is Senior Program Fellow at the Corporate Responsibility Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, an Executive Fellow at the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and Senior Advisor and General Counsel of Shift.

The Collective Failure of Educational Institutions in Boston to Assess the Risk of Transmission to the Community is a Scandal

In the WGBH audio, the dean of the school of public health said that he supported the school’s decision to reopen because Massachusetts numbers are low, but if that changes, BU would have to change as well.  

I found that comment to be very disturbing, since it does not reflect the likelihood that the transmission of the virus from BU as well as the many other colleges in the area, will increase the numbers for all surrounding communities, such as North Brookline where I live.  

I'm not a public health professional, but this reflects a myopic view of the public health risk. 

Risk of transmission doesn’t come just from BU. It comes from the tens of thousands of students in the 14 major institutions in the Boston area. 

None of their campuses are self contained bubbles. They all reside in or near highly dense urban neighborhoods that are home to vulnerable persons, such as people of color, low income, and disabled. Hard numbers are difficult to come by (mainly because the universities are not transparent), but I believe that well over half of the student population from colleges and universities in the Boston area live off campus.  

These communities include Allston, Brighton, Brookline, Kenmore, Fenway, Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Cambridge, Medford, and Somerville.

Whatever colleges and universities do on campus to control the virus, they are unable to control what happens in off-campus apartment buildings. For example, reports from my neighbors in North Brookline are that off-campus parties have been in full swing.

It only takes one or two infected persons at a party to turn it into a spreading event. That has upended the University of Illinois’ highly sophisticated virus model, according to the New York Times yesterday.

To the best of my knowledge, none of these colleges and universities In Boston are collaborating in their testing/tracing/quarantining.  Each institution is on its own. Some, like BU and Harvard, have robust processes. Others, with smaller resources, who knows?

I am not aware that any such institution has assessed the risk of transmission to communities. Moreover, I am unaware that any institution is taking steps to mitigate the impact of the risk of community transmission, such as offering testing, etc., to neighbors.

A collective failure by these institutions to look at the risk of transmission to the community at large, and to take steps to mitigate that risk, is a scandal.  It signifies  atrophy of the sense of a common good. After all, we all breathe the same air.

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