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Commentary: With cases surging, it's time for CofC to shut down campus

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In the midst of every natural disaster there are indelible moments when leaders face difficult but lifechanging decisions.

The administration of the College of Charleston is smack-dab in the middle of such a moment. Cases of COVID-19 have surged, as reported on the university’s COVID-19 Dashboard. As of Friday, more than 100 students tested positive for the disease, and another 181 were in quarantine. This is a public health emergency.

Unfortunately, the main story of the week wasn’t the pandemic. It was the annual fundraising campaign, CofC Day. It’s a surreal moment, but not an unexpected one for me as a historian of pandemics.

I don’t envy the position our university’s president, Andrew Hsu, is in. I am sure he wants to keep the campus community safe. But we all know universities have succumbed to a business model, and the financial implications of shutting down the campus for all in-person events, we are told, are significant. And here is where the rubber hits the road. When does saving lives trump making money?

I think we’re at the moment when President Hsu needs to act decisively.

The number of cases that surged this past week is particularly shocking for a number of reasons. The administration has not required mandatory testing of all students, faculty and staff, so the 100-plus cases surely underestimates the real story of how many people are COVID-19 positive. Our percentage of positive cases in the state remains at nation-leading levels of around 25%. Add to that the news that South Carolina public health officials just discovered first cases in the nation of a new COVID-19 variant, and you have the making of an incredibly tense moment. But one that the administration has been sadly silent on. Instead, it focused on raising money.

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At a virtual town hall for faculty on Aug. 20, 2020, President Hsu provided the campus community with hope. “We have a very good and safe back on the bricks plan,” he announced, “if our campus community follows the guidelines outlined there, we will be able to have a successful and safe semester.” At a similar event on Sept. 3, Hsu followed up this sentiment with a promise: “A lot will unfold in the coming days, weeks and months that will require us to change, pivot, and perhaps change and pivot very quickly, and we will do just that.”

It is now time, in the middle of a sudden surge of COVID-19 cases, for the president to follow through with his promise to keep us safe. And to keep the broader Charleston community safe.

Faculty, staff and students are afraid. I’ve heard it directly from my students and my colleagues. We are at a critical moment, in the middle of a generation-defining pandemic. I’ve studied pandemics my entire career, and I urge President Hsu to cancel all in-person activities at the College of Charleston.

This pandemic, like all pandemics, has shaken the core of our humanity and tested our resolve.

What our leaders do right now, when cases are exploding and friends, family members and neighbors are sick and dying from this deadly and contagious disease, will define our moment in history.

Jacob Steere-Williams is an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston.

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