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College towns face an uphill battle against COVID-19 pandemic

Bloomberg published an interesting article on the impact of the pandemic on college towns last week. The article specifically focused on State College, PA – home of Penn State University. Even though the ZIP code may be different, the issues are all the same.

Penn State – like other Big 10 universities – has committed to trying to hold at least some classes in-person. A lot depends upon students’ willingness to cooperate with new rules. These include social distancing, mask-wearing and observing limits on gathering sizes. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, about one-third of US colleges and universities will offer in-person or hybrid instruction.

The Big 10’s cancellation of fall football will deal a devastating financial blow to towns that live and die by “Football Saturdays.” The hospitality industry has been decimated by hotel and restaurant closures, and thousands of layoffs. College-town hotels are already reporting losses into the tens of millions of dollars. Some have permanently ceased operations.

By some estimates, the Ann Arbor area could lose between $80M-$100M in revenues from the annual Art Fair and home football games. Once the pandemic subsides, it’s not yet clear how quickly people will return to “business as usual.”

Bus changes due to pandemic will hurt WCC students

Residents are already seeing the impacts of COVID-19. Beginning August 30, only one bus route will serve WCC. AATA is making the drastic route changes in part to remain “financially sustainable.” The AATA hopes to restore services, “once the course of the pandemic and its financial impacts become clearer.”

The reduction of bus service to the College will put additional pressure on students who must – or in the case of WTMC, choose to – come to campus. The reduction in bus service, combined with the need to undergo screening before entering the campus might raise an awfully high barrier for these students. When faced with the choice between devoting extra time to travel and screening, or struggling with on-line instruction, some students may simply opt out of classes altogether, hoping for better days ahead.

Those aren’t the only challenges WCC students will face this fall. My son recently experienced the joys of taking a COVID-19 test. Getting the (negative) results took only six days. During that time, he could not work and had to isolate himself. A six-day wait between test and result makes the test pretty much useless. It’s going to be hard to convince asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic students to forego income and put an already shaky semester on hold for six days while they await test results. Instead of hiring a 10th Vice President, WCC should use that money to take care of its students and staff by offering on-site COVID-19 testing with rapid results.

Photo Credit: Virginia Guard Public Affairs, via Flickr