September 9, 2021
Dear Members of Our UD Community,
We are approaching the end of our pause and it is time to set our sights on the future. We all yearn for the return to our vitally important in-person classes. In-person classes will begin again on September 13. Below, I articulate a two-step process that will move us to our new normal with respect to protocols and will enable us to persist without additional pauses to in-person learning.
As I reflect on our situation, I keep circling back to two questions: If COVID in some variant or other is in fact, as many are now saying, endemic, which is to say it is not going away, how do we nonetheless live flourishing lives where we are fully present to each other? Second, since the in-person classroom experience is a fundamental good of our university, how might we avoid pausing again?
In addition to reflecting on these goods, I have been thinking about liberties. We do not require the COVID vaccine as a matter of respect for the liberty of conscience. However, not mandating the vaccine does come with consequences for everyone in our community since there is a greater risk, as we have just seen, of the spread of COVID in a community where there are significant numbers of unvaccinated. It is unquestionable that those who are vaccinated are at a much lower risk of contracting COVID, and that, if they do, the symptoms are significantly less severe than in those who have not been vaccinated (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-vaccine/art-20484859). Moreover, Catholic bioethicists (see the National Catholic Bioethics Center: https://www.ncbcenter.org/ncbc-news/vaccinemandatestatement) and our Catholic bishops (https://www.usccb.org/moral-considerations-covid-vaccines) have repeatedly endorsed the position that vaccines are both morally licit and promotive of the individual and common good. There are many good reasons for members of our community to pursue vaccination, and I encourage those who have not been vaccinated to give the matter serious consideration. That does not mean that vaccines should be required, for liberty to act according to one’s conscience, in light of personal health concerns or family circumstances, is also a good to be weighed, and, in that weighing, the decision to act is the individual’s choice.
It is also important to consider the other side of this: What of the liberty of those who have been vaccinated? It is current CDC guidance that the vaccinated do not need to quarantine when exposed to someone COVID-positive, and in some of the various CDC guidance documentation, masks are not required for those who have been vaccinated. Those who have chosen to be vaccinated may also want to be in classrooms where masks are not required, and have made a choice to vaccinate with the expectation that vaccines would allow a return more or less to normal.
Liberty and responsibility are inseparable. The actions we have taken to contain the coronavirus have been motivated especially out of concern for those who are more vulnerable. While it is true that college-aged populations are not at high risk for serious COVID complications, this population does contribute to the spread of COVID. Further, unvaccinated individuals of any age are more vulnerable to its symptoms than the vaccinated. Thus, the University of Dallas, in our respect for all members of our community, has an obligation to assist in the containment of COVID through demonstrably effective measures such as isolation, quarantine, and masking. It was this obligation, in addition to the challenge of finding a sufficient number of spaces to isolate, that led to our pause.
I have been, and remain, committed to the principle that we should not discriminate between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. That principle needs to cut both ways: it is not just a protection for the conscience of the unvaccinated, but for the conscience of the vaccinated who have been moved to action out of a concern for self and others and want to reap the rewards of greater protection against COVID, as well.
So, how do we do justice to each of these principles, and do so in a way that removes the fear that we are going to be calling for additional pauses as we make our way through the academic year? We need stability and constancy in an approach to moving forward, and, at least one silver lining of the pause we have taken is that it has helped us to formulate a plan to achieve that.
To promote human flourishing and fulfill our educational mission, we need to be as reasonably normal as we can be in our protocols. To avoid pausing again, we need two things: first, while still exercising appropriate care, we need as a community to become tolerant of the reality that the risk of COVID exposure will be with us for the foreseeable future. Second, in order to find an adequate way to have COVID-positive members of the community remove themselves so as not to infect others, we need more rooms in which students can isolate should there be a surge in cases on the order we saw last week. As you might imagine, the vast majority of hotels are not open to welcoming COVID-positive patrons. However, thanks to a friend of the university, we have ability to continue to isolate positive students at an off-campus hotel which will enable us to handle such overflow should we come to that point again.
This summer, when COVID cases were falling, we had all hoped that the start of a new academic year would coincide, more or less, with a return to normal free from the ongoing effects of COVID. However, as the Delta variant has proven, COVID appears to be an endemic phenomenon that we must live with for the foreseeable future. Given this new reality, the approach I’ve outlined above is intended to enable us to return to in-person learning and dispel the fear of future interruptions. This approach -- balancing liberty and responsibility for our entire community -- is meant to carry us through to the end of the academic year without any more pauses to in-person learning, given what we know now about the nature of COVID. Let us, together, move forward in confidence that we flourish most when we pursue truth and wisdom in person, while acting charitably and kindly towards one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy