“We can’t let students return to campus until it’s safe!” Academic Twitter is currently awash in such virtue-signaling platitudes. But if that’s the criteria, we might as well forget ever bringing them back, because it’s never going to be safe.
However, if what those tweeters mean is “safe from COVID-19,” then we can bring students back right now, because they’re already safe — about as safe as they’re ever going to be, and statistically much safer than from many other dangers.
Consider opioid overdoses, which kill between 45,000 and 50,000 Americans each year, many of them college students. In fact, opioids are the second-most abused drug on campus, trailing only marijuana (and not counting alcohol). An estimated 1 in 4 college students abuses opioids.
Speaking of alcohol, a CDC study found that more than 1800 college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries, mostly due to car crashes. Thirty-five a year succumb to alcohol poisoning.
And then there’s suicide. The same CDC study pegged the suicide rate for college students at 6.17 per 100,000. With just under 20 million college students nationwide, that extrapolates to about 1230 suicide deaths each year.
By comparison, according to the CDC, during the time period from February 1 through April 18—the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in America — 17 people ages 15-24 died from the disease. Note that social distancing measures didn’t go into effect until mid-to-late March.
Remember all those breathless news reports about irresponsible spring breakers who died from coronavirus? No? Me neither.
But I digress. With a total population in the 15-24 age bracket of approximately 43 million, that means, at the peak, their death rate from COVID-19 was .0000004, or 4 in 10 million. So given 20 million students, a similar outbreak in the fall—the dreaded “second wave” — might result in eight deaths.
The numbers from Italy are strikingly similar. You remember Italy, right? The country whose coronavirus horror stories induced abject panic here in the U.S.? In Italy, according to reports from their National Institute of Health, the virus killed exactly 17 people under the age of 30.
Clearly, although students encounter many dangers on college campuses, COVID-19 is unlikely to be one of them. Statistically speaking, it kills hardly anyone under the age of 30 — and virtually no healthy young people.
Sure, some students might be more vulnerable than others due to underlying health conditions. The same may certainly be said for older faculty and staff. Let’s take whatever precautions are necessary to protect those individuals, allowing them to take or teach classes online or otherwise work from home.
But the rest, including almost all the students and the majority of employees, can return to campus this fall with very little risk. Then maybe we can get back to worrying about things that actually pose a significant threat to young people, like depression, drug addiction, and alcoholism.