The fall semester of 2020 was perhaps the most difficult semester since WWII for colleges to plan for. No one was entirely sure if in-person classes were feasible, much less whether we could endure a whole semester of them. Northwest’s leadership ended up guiding the University to a mostly-successful first semester.
One would expect that given their now experience of operating a university in a pandemic, leadership would be able to plan early and inform students of their plans well ahead of time.
Instead, Northwest officially canceled spring break for spring 2021 and sent out an email to notify students of this change after they had already registered for classes and finished the fall semester. The official Northwest Twitter account did make an official tweet Dec. 18 regarding the change but neglected to mention the actual cancellation in the tweet, rather they directed students to the University website.
The decision to cancel spring break and end the semester early is the correct one. The cancellation will, of course, limit the number of students who plan to go on trips that week which could help prevent spikes in COVID-19 cases at the end of the semester when it’s critical for students and faculty to be healthy and capable.
Detractors will argue that students will decide to go on their planned trips regardless and that Northwest can’t stop them, which might be true. Northwest is not meant to be an authoritarian regime and students do have free will, but if this decision prevents one person from going and getting the coronavirus and possibly spreading it to others then it’s the right call.
The question is, why was this decision announced so late and at a time when students wouldn’t be regularly checking email?
Provost Jamie Hooyman told The Missourian that University decision-makers wanted to gather as much information as possible before making their decision. Quite frankly, they should have known we would be operating in a COVID-19 stricken spring semester long before midway through December.
Yes, the new favorite phrase for this pandemic has been “these uncertain times” but a few things were in fact certain.
Cases of the virus and deaths related to COVID-19 were climbing towards the end of the fall semester all across the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There was no indication we would be out of the woods in terms of infection rates like that of New Zealand or Australia, and people were continuing to not follow guidelines. So the hope couldn’t have been in a miracle that people who hadn’t been socially distancing and wearing masks were suddenly going to start.
Then comes the vaccine, which hadn’t even begun to be administered in the U.S. until after the end of the fall semester. It was clear early on that the process of getting the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone was going to take many months and that it wouldn’t occur until late summer 2021 or even the fall of 2021.
Also, given that the now outgoing presidential administration had a tendency to botch things when it came to COVID-19, like failing to listen to health experts to properly plan for the virus and failing to follow guidelines for their own events, no faith should have been put in them to right the ship now and handle the vaccination process correctly.
All of the information was there. And while the decision may be an unpopular one, if decision-makers were going to make it they should have done it when students were on campus and before everyone had registered for classes. It appears that they knew the decision would be unpopular and tried to bury it until the amount of outrage would be limited. This is also shown in the way they decided to announce.
By mid-December students planning on going on spring break trips likely already purchased plane tickets and rented Airbnbs. These students will now be forced to make a choice on whether to take an academic or a financial hit.
And while they did send out a mass email, it was sent out after finals and prior to Christmas. This is a period of time when the furthest thing from a students’ minds is what is sitting in their Outlook inbox because they don’t even want to think about next semester.
The decision will ultimately be hamstrung by ineffective communication. Students and their families will proceed with planned trips and possibly be exposed to the virus which they could bring back to Northwest.
It may be the right decision, but it was handled the wrong way.