By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer

With Le Moyne College’s fall semester fast approaching, the ever-changing details and plans and guidelines are disturbing Linda LeMura’s sleep. LeMura, president of the only Catholic college in the Syracuse Diocese, and her staff are weighing the financial implications, public health responsibilities, and ethics of potential scenarios of residential college education during a pandemic. 

“We really tried very hard to think about who will be best served by reopening, and at the end of the day, the poorest of the poor need us open,” LeMura said July 30, two weeks before first-year students are set to begin arriving on The Heights. “We’re trying to find out how to do it safely for everybody. That’s the delicate dance that keeps us up at night. I mean, it’s nerve wracking.”

As colleges and universities plan for the fall semester amid the global health crisis that abruptly closed most campuses in March, leaders at Catholic schools agree on one point: There is no perfect solution.

“Every option, it seems, brings a potential for harm to someone in some way,” said Patrick Hornbeck, professor of theology at Fordham University’s Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Hornbeck’s comments came during the July 14 online panel, “Reopening Justly or Just Reopening?”

Speakers addressed how Catholic social teaching (CST) influences plans to reopen and how colleges and universities will deliver instruction amid what Hornbeck called “the twin crises of COVID-19 and structural racism.” The latter issue emerged after George Floyd was killed May 25 by a white police officer. Ongoing protests call for an end to police brutality and racial inequality.

Nearly 75% of about 3,000 institutions of higher education in the United States had reported reopening plans by July 30, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Of those opening, less than 3% planned to provide teaching either fully online or fully in person. Another 24% planned to teach primarily online, and 16% will offer a hybrid plan that includes some online and some in-person teaching.

Le Moyne College will offer a mix of in-person and remote teaching. Their reopening plan includes a shortened semester, changes to residence halls, and smaller classes. First-year students will participate in a two-week course on campus before returning students arrive beginning Aug. 28. Classes will start Aug. 31. The college will end in-person classes before Thanksgiving and will hold finals remotely.

Le Moyne announced July 16 all non-championship competition is suspended for the fall semester. Affected teams include baseball, men’s and women’s lacrosse, softball and men’s tennis. There will be no intercollegiate competition for winter sports until January.

Most of the 28 Jesuit institutions of higher education intend a mix of in-person and remote teaching, according to the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. Four — Creighton, Loyola University New Orleans, Saint Louis University, and Xavier — intend to provide in-person teaching, with plans to shift online if necessary.

New York’s virus transmission rate, at 0.96 on Aug. 2, is acceptable to allow reopening, state officials said this week. Coronavirus outbreaks in other parts of the country and noncompliance with public health rules remain threats, though, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Recent news accounts of infection spreading after parties and sporting events are raising concerns about reopening plans and compliance with public health guidelines. A New York Times analysis found at least 6,600 cases tied to about 270 colleges over the course of the pandemic. 

Catholic institutions, speakers at the Fordham event noted, can turn to CST as a distinctive framework for considering options. CST draws on church documents for “wisdom about building a just society and living lives of holiness amidst the challenges of modern society,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Key principles include solidarity, the common good, concern for the most vulnerable, and the dignity of the human person.

CST offers “a really powerful set of reference points that enrich our thinking and complexify it,” said Jesuit Father David McCallum, Le Moyne’s vice president for Mission Integration & Development. “A pragmatic approach, or a utilitarian approach, would in many ways try to simplify the situation. But the choice we make by adopting Catholic social teaching is to allow that complexity to be what it is. We have trust that out of that will emerge the discernment that will be best for the common good.”

College leaders pointed to emergency funds for students and staff “falling upon difficult times” as campus policies that reflect the preferential option, the common good, or the dignity of workers. The college is accommodating faculty requests on how they want to teach, and preparing to provide assistance for students who cannot go home if the college shuts down again.

They pointed to the COVID-19 Task Force, which drew from all segments of the campus community, as an example of subsidiarity, which calls for decision making to include more than just top leaders.

“A lot of this flows from our mission naturally,” said Jesuit Father Joseph Marina, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “The heart of CST is the protection of human rights and dignity, and the advancement of the common good. And that’s at the heart of our mission.”

Back Home to the Heights, the college’s 21-page plan, includes a reference to this mission. “Our plan is consistent with the College’s Jesuit Catholic mission and values of assuring that we care for and respect each individual and for our community as a whole,” the executive summary says.

The detailed plan on the college’s website does not mention CST, its principles, or the college’s mission. LeMura acknowledged it’s a missed opportunity. “So far as students are concerned, we need to be more explicit,” she said. “There are lots of ample opportunities where we can bring Catholic social teaching to light using the pandemic as an example.”

Still, the concepts were “part of the entire process at all times,” she said. “We set up the structures at the college to enhance the Catholic social teaching that we hold so dear. When we put together the plan, Rerum Novarum [1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII that affirms workers’ rights] was on my mind constantly.”

LeMura said the college chose to cut salaries rather than lay people off. “Putting people out into a moribund economy at this time is the antithesis of Rerum Novarum,” she said. Layoffs would mean “we’re not considering the dignity, the importance of having work, meaningful work, and contributions to the greater good.”

LeMura was confident that bringing students to campus, with adjustments and rules, was the best solution and she remained optimistic they could keep students, faculty, and staff safe. “Our faculty teach our students about comfort with ambiguity. That’s the biggest lesson since March,” she said. “And we are following the data.”

Convincing Le Moyne students to wear masks, wash hands, social distance, and avoid large groups will be “a heavy lift, but they deserve a chance to rise to the occasion,” LeMura said.

Renée K. Gadoua is a Le Moyne College graduate and a frequent contributor to The Catholic Sun.

This story has been updated to clarify that Le Moyne College cut salaries but did not lay people off. 





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