Colleges and universities across the country are grappling with how to reopen as safely as possible for students, faculty, and staff this fall.

“We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, one that’s combined with broad and outspoken activism in the area of racial justice,” said J. Patrick Hornbeck, Ph.D., chair of the Fordham theology department. “Both of these, and in particular, the intersection of them, have highlighted long-standing and systemic forms of inequality and inequity. Catholic colleges and universities, like all colleges and universities, are considering their plans for reopening right at the intersection of these twin crises.”

Hornbeck served as moderator for “Reopening Justly or Just Reopening? Catholic Social Teaching, Universities, and COVID-19,” a panel discussion organized by Fordham’s Department of Theology and the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies The Zoom event focused on issues related to reopening, such as balancing the desire to open campuses with the need to keep people safe, the implications of students’ physical and mental health, and how the most vulnerable are affected by these decisions.

These questions are all interconnected, said Christine Firer Hinze, professor of theology and outgoing director of the Curran Center at Fordham, and can be addressed through the lens of Catholic social teaching, which focuses on matters of human dignity and common good in society. Catholic social teaching can serve as a “set of navigational markers” to help those who are making these decisions, she said.

“Decision-making around COVID … should be reality-based …and at the same time value-oriented,” she said. “We should respect the dignity and enhance the well-being of all our different stakeholders. We know this is not easy …. We are all interdependent. COVID has brought that home ridiculously clearly.”

Hornbeck said that all of these questions surrounding reopening require “ethical triage” because every option seems to “bring a potential for harm to someone in some way.”

Oftentimes, those who are the most affected by these decisions are the most vulnerable, said Craig Ford, assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert’s College.

“The question now for me is who is being placed in vulnerable positions, and I think that’s something we really have to keep in mind,” he said. “We’re all vulnerable because of COVID-19, but what practices are we doing as an institution when we are asking people to be placed into vulnerable positions?”

Ford cited as an example the difference between faculty members who may have the option of teaching fully or partially online compared to staff members who work and live in residence halls. On the other hand, Ford also wondered about what could happen to students, particularly students of color and LGBTQ students, if they are sent back home.

“[What] if we pull people into our institution and are forced to send them home within four to five weeks because we have outbreaks—how are they going to continue to learn, how are they vulnerable again?” he asked. “Also our LGBTQ folks, where coming to campus might be good for them in some way but going home might be dangerous again, how do we take responsibility as an institution recognizing all these variables in people’s lives?”

Kate Ward, assistant professor of theology at Marquette University, said that it often feels like we’re in a situation where there “seems to be no good choices.” She highlighted the fact that if universities do fully reopen, there’s a chance people get sick, but fully staying closed could have unintended consequences.

“If we don’t open campus, some students will be home in less-than-safe situations. Some may come to harm there, others may not finish their degree, and other harms may occur—instability to our institutions, job loss of vulnerable workers,” she said.

Gerald Beyer, associate professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University, argued that at the very least, if universities do reopen, they have to do as much as possible to protect those who are most vulnerable by providing proper PPE and other safety measures.

Beyer also called on colleges to make sure they have the resources ready to help students in whatever form that takes, including making counseling resources available online and having campus ministers available to address students’ needs.

“Mental health, and I would add spiritual health, on Catholic campuses is crucial, these are crucial issues,” he said.

Both Ford and Ward called on Catholic universities and their staff and faculty members to think “more creatively” about online learning and how they can serve their communities during this time.

“What does it mean to generate content all the time? What does it mean to rethink a lot of what students want?” he asked.

Ford said in his classes, he’s used the online forum to have guest speakers come in to talk about their jobs and how they implement principles of social justice in their work.

“Teaching online is not like teaching face to face, but that means there are new opportunities,” he said.