As academic institutions in Morningside Heights plan to allow students back to campus during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are concerned about the effects on the health of local residents in the surrounding Morningside Heights and West Harlem neighborhoods.
On July 7, University President Lee Bollinger announced plans for the upcoming academic year for the undergraduate schools. These plans include offering a mix of in-person and remote courses, as well as accommodating 60 percent of undergraduate students in on-campus residence halls, with first- and second-year students returning in the fall and third- and fourth-year students returning in the spring.
According to the current plan, students and faculty—including those from states and countries with high COVID-19 rates—will return to college campuses and interact with the larger high-density Morningside Heights and West Harlem communities.
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institution of Technology acknowledged this connection in their court papers challenging the Donald Trump administration’s recently-rescinded immigration directive, which would have revoked the visas of international students attending exclusively online classes.
“Because higher education institutions do not exist in a vacuum, an outbreak at one poses a threat to the health and safety of everyone in the surrounding community,” the universities stated, according to the New York Times.
Furthermore, on August 7, Princeton University released an update to its fall plan retracting its announcement of limited return to campus for undergraduates. The university explained that it “cannot provide a genuinely meaningful on-campus experience for [its] undergraduate students this fall in a manner that is respectful of public health concerns and consistent with state regulations and guidance.” As Princeton is located in a less-densely-populated city, has a smaller undergraduate student body than Columbia, and a larger endowment-to-student ratio, this news is alarming.
Moreover, many residents of Morningside Heights and Hamilton Heights are Black and Hispanic—racial groups that are at a higher risk of suffering complications from COVID-19. The 13 percent of the population that is 65 years of age or older could also be endangered by college students that have returned to campus.
Concerns about Columbia students returning to campus have been adopted by members of our community. Responses from 291 residents to a survey conducted by the MHCC indicate a preference for students not to return in the fall. Some respondents are skeptical that students will practice social distancing and that protocols for quarantining and testing can be strictly enforced. In a recent Spectator article, incoming students admitted that they might not always follow regulations.
It is important to keep in mind that in March and April, New York City was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The constant wail of sirens provided the backdrop to an underlying sense of terror. During this time in Morningside Heights, educational institutions sent students home to mitigate the risk of transmission. Thanks to the heroic efforts of local health care workers at Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital and the safeguards adopted by residents and merchants, the threat of the virus has been curbed and the total number of cases has remained relatively constant for weeks.
However, the pandemic still took its toll on our neighbors. As of August 10, there have been over 4,000 cases of COVID-19 and 422 documented deaths in Morningside Heights and West Harlem.
Although we understand the contribution students make to our neighborhood’s businesses and the need to stimulate our local economy, we are not without our concerns. The MHCC wrote to Bollinger on July 10 reiterating our concern about the threat to the neighborhood posed by reopening. We also remain skeptical about measures such as the Columbia Community Health Compact, especially after reading one student’s claim that she had not reviewed the new health guidance before agreeing to it and another’s that he did not remember its contents.
We continue to ask Columbia to continue to consider and include the surrounding neighborhood in its decision-making process about reopening. We seek to meet with the administration so that the concerns of the community are not ignored as our mutual health and well-being are at stake.
Dave Robinson and Harry Schwartz are members of the executive committee of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition, a group of local advocates committed to protecting the integrity and well-being of our diverse neighborhood.