The Push to Reopen Business Schools - The Covid-19 Revolt MBA Students May Soon Regret

The storm on the Lake Michigan shore in Evanston might have blown over, but a more ominous threat isn’t far behind.

When the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University decided to defend against Covid-19 in February 2021 by limiting classes with an in-person or hybrid in-person/remote configuration to only 16 percent of the courses offered by the school, MBA students swiftly and vigorously pushed back.

Citing leaked messages from students to the business school’s administration, students who requested anonymity told Poets and Quants that a protest petition had quickly garnered 400 signatures.

Why? Apparently students believed that these restrictions were unreasonable, claiming that nobody had yet fallen ill from Covid-19 inside Kellogg’s new building complex opened in 2017, the Global Hub.

Emotional Intensity from MBAs?

Kellogg MBAs felt strongly about continued limitations, and several of their remarks quoted in the Poets article display a surprising emotional intensity that doesn’t at all fit the stereotype of usually level-headed MBA students. For example:

  • Kellogg has just delayed spring quarter class-bidding the day before it started because after the administration tried to slip it by students that only 16% of classes would have a hybrid component in the spring, a petition with over 400 signatures was sent to Dean [Sunil] Chopra. This all happened despite having several webinars where the Covid-19 task force has admitted that they have yet to contract trace a single person getting sick in the Global Hub.
  • We heard a lot of messaging from the administration in December & January that they would expand opportunities to use the Hub in winter. Yet, less than a quarter of classes were offered in person in Winter and the Hub has been completely inaccessible for 4 out of 6 weeks of the quarter. Hearing that our access to the Hub is being even further limited next quarter is frustrating and disappointing for many of us.
  • The Class of 2021 has had our “pay it forward” on overdrive this year as we worked tirelessly to replicate almost all of Kellogg’s marquee events in a virtual world. Given this, and Kellogg’s demonstrated ability to pivot, we would appreciate some consideration to help us make the most we can of our last ten weeks as part of the on-campus community.
  • That next quarter only 16% of the classes will get the hybrid/in-person component is just overwhelming and frustrating. I worked so hard to get here and left so much in my home country to get the Full Kellogg Experience and experience in-person classes, and not being able to do it is very frustrating. I know we are in unprecedented times, and I do not take that lightly. Covid-19 as a driver in how classes are held is understandable. But hearing today in the ‘Q&A with Dean Chopra on Spring Modalities’ session that the 16% decision was taken due to TCE data and not Covid-19 issues is disappointing. The expectations I had for the Kellogg experience versus what the reality is today and for the near future, is just devastating for me.

Covid-19 Within Kellogg’s Community

To be fair, however, one should recognize that even though remarks like these appear to ostensibly emphasize the lack of Covid-19 “in the Global Hub,” Covid-19 cases are actually nothing new at Kellogg. In fact, a number of Kellogg students and staff have indeed tested positive or come into close contact with someone who did.

As we pointed out on BSchools in April 2020, the virus ripped through Kellogg early in the pandemic. During March, four employees inside the Global Hub went home to isolate after receiving Covid-19 diagnoses and quarantine orders. Those employees accounted for most of the first seven cases at Northwestern’s Evanston and Chicago campuses.

University spokesman Jon Yates told the Daily Northwestern that during a ten-day period ending October 26 alone there were nine Covid-19 cases among Kellogg faculty, students and staff—and eight of those cases were students.

After tracing the cases to several off-campus MBA student superspreader social events, Kellogg then quickly shut down the Global Hub and shifted all courses online for two weeks. Incredibly, when it contract-traced four of the students who tested positive, Northwestern found that more than 50 Kellogg students had attended those off-campus social gatherings.

In an unusual move, the university then directed all full-time Chicagoland Kellogg MBA students to quarantine at home for 15 days (students at a satellite Latin American Executive MBA campus in Miami weren’t affected).

Also, days before Kellogg’s October closure, the Compass Group announced two subcontracted Northwestern staffers who work at the Global Hub also tested positive for Covid-19; they were sent home to quarantine for ten days.

An Administration that Caved?

In any event, Kellogg’s administration caved to the MBA students’ pressure. Administrators effectively doubled the previous limit on those classes with an in-person or hybrid in-person/remote configuration, which will now account for about 30 percent of all classes instead of only 16. The move came shortly after Kellogg’s home jurisdiction in Illinois, Cook County, raised the legal limit it would enforce on in-person gatherings to 50 people.

But at best, the MBA students may have won a fleeting victory, because the administration may very well find itself forced to roll back those concessions sooner than anyone had imagined at the time of its decision on February 24. That’s because neither the students nor the administration had planned on the front-page news that would break only a few days later.

They didn’t plan on B.1.1.7.

The B.1.1.7 Risks MBA Students Need to Know

By now, most BSchools readers have heard of B.1.1.7, also referenced by the identifiers VOC/202012-01 and SGTF. First recognized in Britain in December 2020, it is a new SARS-CoV-2 variant that has garnered much of the world’s concern in the past few weeks.

A physician on President Biden’s Covid-19 Advisory Board, epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist Dr. Celine Gounder told CNN on March 7 that the experts were so concerned about this variant that they actually convened an emergency meeting on Christmas Eve to review its spread. “We’ve been tracking it very closely since then,” she said. “Where it has hit in the U.K. and now elsewhere in Europe, it has really been catastrophic. It has driven up rates of hospitalizations and deaths and it’s very difficult to control.”

B.1.1.7 accounted for less than two percent of cases in Britain in early December but now accounts for 98 percent. In the United States, it made up from 1 to 4 percent of the virus spreading in communities in early February.

But as profiled in this January KGO TV video report, San Francisco-based genomic sequencing firm Helix has already tracked the B.1.1.7 variant surging through 49 U.S. states. With Covid-19 cases rising again in 15 states, substantial B.1.1.7 outbreaks are now underway across Florida, California, Georgia, and also in Texas, where high concentrations appeared in samples from Houston’s wastewater.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control, revealed on March 15 that the variant now accounts for 46 percent of new cases in Florida, 25 percent of new cases in California, and about 40 percent of the cases in both Georgia and Texas. She added that if current growth rates continue, the CDC expects B.1.1.7 to be the predominant strain across the nation by the first week in April.

Because of late-breaking research released during mid-March 2021, only days before this article’s publication, we now know that the cluster of robust mutations contained within this variant presents much more danger than an immediate and formidable threat to the general public’s health.

In contrast to the wild type SARS-CoV-2 virus first discovered in Wuhan in December 2019, this new B.1.1.7. variant presents a far greater threat to population segments not previously considered at risk. As we’ll see below, one of these segments encompasses most MBA students.

If they haven’t already done so, it is essential that MBA students and others in the management education community drop what they are doing and familiarize themselves with the newly-identified risks of the B.1.1.7 variant to their health and safety. The summary below can help.

So far, the complete spectrum of these new risks has not yet received adequate coverage from most media outlets in the United States, including television cable news channels like CNBC, CNN, and MSNBC. Coverage in the United Kingdom and Europe has been more comprehensive but still has not addressed the scope and significance of these risks.
Risks center on three alarming new aspects:

  • B.1.1.7’s dramatically more efficient transmission dynamics.
  • The variant’s extreme lethality.
  • The significantly lower age profile that now includes children and young adults, with many more cases between 19 and 49 years old.

B.1.1.7’s Efficient Transmission Dynamics

The table that kicks off this article rank-orders the transmission efficiency of various infectious diseases prior to interventions like face masks or vaccines. Note that the wild type SARS-CoV-2 virus ranks in the middle of the pack, ahead of HIV and the common cold, but below more contagious diseases like smallpox or polio.

Late-breaking unpublished research compiled for the government of the State of Minnesota and cited by epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy suggests that the transmission rate of B.1.1.7 approaches that of measles. He claims he’s never seen such efficient disease transmission during his 45-year public health career.

Dr. Osterholm bases his analysis on the transmission rate measured through testing and tracing within the fastest-spreading B.1.1.7 outbreak yet discovered in the United States. This cluster has been identified within a suburban area southwest of Minneapolis in Carver County. On March 5, the Minnesota Department of Health warned of a “rapidly growing” outbreak of the U.K. Covid-19 variant there linked to youth sports.

As of March 13, the agency had reported 29 cases with confirmed B.1.1.7 variant involvement out of 114 infections in the cluster thus far, with 49 samples still pending genomic sequencing analysis.

This is an astonishing disclosure because measles is well known to be the fastest-spreading, most contagious disease in existence. Measles transmits substantially faster than even its two closest competitors, chickenpox and mumps—and at roughly two to three times the rate of the wild type SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Nevertheless, Dr. Osterholm’s report stands confirmed by other researchers who measured a similarly rapid spread in Europe, including several who estimate the B.1.1.7 variant to be as much as 50 to 70 percent more infectious than the SARS-CoV-2 wild type.

Another curious fact: in Carver County, all the cases involve young athletes from different towns competing in organized sports. According to Dr. Osterholm, the outbreak mirrors the earliest spread of the B.1.1.7 variant in England, which at first didn’t concern researchers because initial cases involved a demographic category that at the time had rarely suffered from severe Covid-19: young adults. We’ll have more to say below about the disconcerting proportion of B.1.1.7 in individuals who are closer in age to many of our BSchools readers.

B.1.1.7’s Extreme Lethality

Previously, scientists understood that B.1.1.7 was more contagious, but controversy ensued over whether it might also be more dangerous. However, released on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic declaration by the World Health Organization, this blockbuster paper in the British Medical Journal has likely settled the issue.

This paper’s British authors convincingly argue that the B.1.1.7 variant is up to 100 percent more deadly than the wild type SARS-CoV-2 virus. That means the new variant is probably twice as lethal—implying that, other things equal, it’s likely to produce double the number of deaths as the wild-type virus.

Below we quote from the team’s sobering conclusions:

The probability that the risk of mortality is increased by infection with VOC-202012/01 is high. If this finding is generalisable to other populations, infection with VOC-202012/1 has the potential to cause substantial additional mortality compared with previously circulating variants.

Healthcare capacity planning and national and international control policies are all impacted by this finding, with increased mortality lending weight to the argument that further coordinated and stringent measures are justified to reduce deaths from SARS-CoV-2.

Look specifically at the team’s language: “with increased mortality lending weight to the argument that further coordinated and stringent measures are justified.”

Make no mistake about what the team declares through that language. By warning us that further stringent measures are justified by the doubled mortality, they are declaring unequivocally that not only are severe current lockdown regulations justified but that in view of B.1.1.7’s likely doubled lethality, rigorous lockdowns don’t go far enough. In other words, they’re arguing in favor of policies that are the opposite of the lockdown rollbacks in jurisdictions like Texas, Mississippi—and Cook County.

B.1.1.7’s Risk to Younger People

With the wild type SARS-CoV-2 virus, most of the concern had focused on the oldest age groups because there consistently existed a direct, lockstep correlation between the severity of illness and increasing age.

For most of the past year, younger individuals hadn’t needed to worry as much as those who were much older. SARS-CoV-2 appeared to transmit less efficiently through younger segments. And although some young people who contracted Covid-19 got sick, they faced very small probabilities that they would ever die from the disease.

Unfortunately, those days appear to be over. As we noted above, B.1.1.7 cases are significantly younger than the older cases who contracted the wild type SARS-CoV-2 virus. And so far, this is an unexpected aspect to which the press in the United States has inexplicably failed to draw attention, although as more young people get sick or drive transmission within schools and families, media outlets will be forced to latch on to this angle.

After a year of hearing about millions of elderly Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes all over the world, many of our readers in the United States and other non-European nations may be surprised to learn that the B.1.1.7 variant actually targets victims closer to their own age. Yet that’s what British researchers found by sequencing 10 percent of all U.K. Covid-19 case genomes.

For example, one of the first reports on B.1.1.7 within the United Kingdom published by the World Health Organization on December 21 contained the startling statement, “Most Covid-19 cases from whom this variant has been identified have occurred in people under 60 years of age.”

Here’s another study released on January 4 that looked at age statistics for the B.1.1.7 cases in the United Kingdom. This study compares trends between the non-VOC (non-variant of concern) cases—shorthand which represents the SARS-CoV-2 wild type—with the VOC cases that represent B.1.1.7. This study contains the following language:

Available SGTF data indicate a shift in the age composition of reported cases, with a larger share of under 20 year olds among reported VOC than non-VOC cases. . .

To assess differences in the age distribution of VOC versus non-VOC cases, we considered S- and S+ case numbers in weeks 46-51 across NHS [National Health Service] STP regions. Case numbers were standardised for differences in the population age composition in each area, weighted to compare S- cases from each NHS STP region and each epidemiological week with an equal number of S+ cases from that same STP and week (a case-control design), and aggregated over STP weeks.

Accounting for binomial sampling variation and variation by area and week, we observe significantly more S- cases, our biomarker of VOC cases, among individuals aged 0-19 as compared to S+ cases, and significantly fewer S- cases among individuals aged 60-79 (Figure 4). This trend is seen in each of the regions of England most affected by the VOC thus far (East of England, London, South East and Midlands), and similar differences are seen between the raw (non-case control weighted, and non-age-standardised) age distributions of S+ and S- cases.

In other words, this team observed significantly more B.1.1.7 cases younger than age 20, and significantly fewer cases among the oldest groups aged 60 to 79. Moreover, these trends appear to be consistent differences. They displayed across four of the most densely populated areas in England, and prominently appeared even when the team had analyzed raw data sets.

What might be reasonable to conclude in view of these reports? Given that about 80 percent of prospective and current MBA students range in age between 26 and 49 years old, the B.1.1.7 variant more frequently targets younger individuals within the age range of most MBA students.

Protecting MBA Students From the Vaccination Timing Gap

All three SARS-CoV-2 vaccines approved in the United States provide adequate protection from B.1.1.7, including the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines we profiled here on BSchools in December 2020.

However, since the U.S. vaccination protocols start with the oldest age groups and “step down” through progressively younger brackets, many MBA students without disabilities or pre-existing conditions will have to wait until they’re among the last groups vaccinated.

Under the plans announced by President Biden during his address to the nation marking the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11 and updated with brief remarks on March 18, all Americans will be eligible to register by May 1 for vaccinations. “Let me be clear, that doesn’t mean everyone’s going to have that shot immediately, but it means you’ll be able to get in line beginning May 1,” he said.

But under the federal plan, the youngest groups may not actually receive their injections until several weeks later. And at the time of this writing, if one assumes that everyone should receive at least a first shot by June 15, that’s still almost 13 weeks. Not only is that date after the school year ends for most MBA students, but it’s also a long time to wait for protection from such a rapidly-spreading, dangerous and unpredictable variant.

This vaccination timing gap amounts to the reason why the B.1.1.7 surge presents a threat to MBA students across the nation. The gap is also a major reason why those students—especially the younger ones—need to fully appreciate the variant’s risks that justify strict continued adherence to nonpharmaceutical prevention efforts (such as N95 masks, face shields, and distancing) that reduce opportunities for exposure. Otherwise, so long as the federal government can’t further accelerate vaccine delivery, and if the B.1.1.7 variant rips through the United States at anything even close to the speed and virulence at which it tore through the United Kingdom over the holidays and shut down Italy with a new lockdown starting March 15, many younger MBA students could end up as sitting ducks in the crosshairs of B.1.1.7.

Fortunately for Kellogg students, on March 18 Governor J.B. Pritzker announced that all Illinois residents over age 16 except Chicagoans would be eligible to register for vaccines starting April 12, three weeks ahead of the federal plan. Chicago, which receives separate federal vaccine allocations and sets its own eligibility rules, will continue to only vaccinate those with underlying conditions and targeted groups of essential workers through March 29.

A Photo Finish

The tight race to beat the B.1.1.7 surge by vaccinating everyone could end up in a photo finish. Meanwhile, like all MBA students nationwide, if they don’t want their campus shut down again, Kellogg’s students need to continue to do their part to protect themselves along with their classmates, faculty, and staff. Paying close attention to media reports like ours here at BSchools and getting vaccinated as soon as it’s their turn should also help.

They might also reflect on this insight from Dr. Gounder:

This is sort of like we’ve been running this really long marathon, and we’re 100 yards from the finish line and we sit down and we give up. We’re almost there, we just need to give ourselves a bit more time to get a larger proportion of the population covered with vaccines.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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