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Petition, worry, relief: What happened before, after Notre Dame closed campus

| Thursday, March 12, 2020

Notre Dame announced the cancellation of in-person classes and closing of residence halls through a school-wide email on Wednesday.

The University published a series of letters detailing regulations and suggestions for on-campus students, students currently abroad, faculty, staff and parents. 

The series of decisions responded to the continued spread of COVID-19 throughout the United States and more than 100 colleges closing their campuses, including Indiana University, Purdue, Northwestern, Duke and Harvard.

Following the University’s announcement, the Department of Health confirmed the first case of coronavirus in St. Joseph County. Previously, there had been 10 cases confirmed in Indiana. 

Many students are satisfied with the school’s decision.

“Notre Dame did the right thing,” senior Erin Shang said. “Many students travel in the U.S. or abroad during the break, and there is a potential risk of spreading coronavirus on campus. Closing the campus definitely decreases such risk.”

Shang said she thought the policy was flexible.

“The school doesn’t totally shut down,” she said. “Students who can’t return home can still remain on campus, and many departments are still operating.” 

According to the announcement, students are encouraged to stay or return home after spring break. However, some international students face difficulties going home.

Junior Jiadai Li, who is originally from China, said she plans to stay in her dorm, Flaherty Hall.

“It’s unrealistic to [be] going home,” Li said. “We don’t know the certain restart time of in-person classes, and I may not able to re-enter America because of the travel ban. The situation of the epidemic is still serious in China.”

Residence halls will close Tuesday at noon. The Office of Residential Life will contact students who may be unable to return home, and they could be approved to remain on campus, according to the announcement email from the Division of Student Affairs.

Miranda Ma, senior advisor for Asia of Notre Dame International, sent a message to a Chinese student chat group: “All international students (Non-American Citizenship or Green Card Holders) will receive an email from the Office of Residential Life and you will be approved to stay on campus.”

Apart from residence halls, Fischer Graduate Residences will remain open, and all residents are permitted to stay until the end of their leases, according to the Division of Student Affairs letter.

Off-campus residences are not affected by the campus closures. 

Most offices and departments serving students will continue to operate, including North Dining Hall, University Health Services and University Counseling Center.

However, some departments may be closed or limited, leaving staff members concerned about their pay. 

When she received the email from the Office of the President at noon Wednesday, Faith Thomas, a staff member working at Duncan Student Center, began to worry about her job.

“This is my only job,” Thomas said. “If the restaurants [at Duncan] close because the school closes, how can I get my salary? What am I going to do?”

Later in the afternoon, associate vice president for human resources Robert McQuade sent a letter to Notre Dame staff.

“All full-time and part-time regular employees will continue to receive the regular pay and benefits for work hours for which they are normally scheduled,” McQuade said in the letter. “This will apply even if their department goes to limited staffing or they are not able to work due to organizational decisions.”

Changes to the University class schedule begin with an extra week before courses move to online-only, extending spring break until March 23. All in-person classes will be replaced with online courses or other alternative options from March 23 through at least April 13, according to the University announcement.

However, the extension of break does not intend to encourage students to travel domestically or abroad, Emily Saavedra, international and graduate programs administrative assistant at the Law School, said.

“The extension of break and online courses are the reaction to a global emergency and all the students should also take action on it, that is self-quarantine when it’s needed and social distancing,” Saavedra said. “If you go party in a foreign country right now and the outbreak starts, you may not be able to come back. In this case, we can’t guarantee the extension of the online course and other special-time accommodations particularly for you.”

According to the Division of Student Affairs, students who have traveled to any country rated as a CDC Level 3 travel advisory — currently China, South Korea, Iran and Italy — are required to self-quarantine and self-monitor their temperature for 14 days before coming onto campus.

While the campus is mostly closed, education and research continue. However, students and faculty have voiced concern about the potential difficulties of classes being conducted online.

“The interaction and discussion between students on class may be affected,” law student Joseph Pog said. “In the classroom, students’ interactions are direct and immediate, which helps us to think more and learn more, but it may not be effective on the online course.”

Pog said it’s understandable that the online course is the best solution in the current circumstance.

“The professors should also be trained about how to deliver the online courses well,” he said.

Students studying in labs or studios are especially concerned about online courses.

“A lot of my classes are discussion or experiment-based,” junior ACMS and economics major Mitchell Larson said. “[Online classes] means I’m losing out on that education.”

Notre Dame is working on the support of teaching transition.

In a letter to faculty, Provost Tom Burish said a team supported by ND Learning and the Office of Information Technologies had been collecting and organizing a set of online resources to help with the transition to online instruction.

“We recognize that these steps, while necessary, are disruptive and that delivering instruction remotely poses unique challenges for many courses and programs,” Burish said in the letter. “[But] we continue to provide our students with the best possible educational experience at Notre Dame under extraordinary circumstances.”

The petitioner: “We international students face more vulnerable status”

Before Notre Dame decided to close campus due to the coronavirus, more than 100 other colleges had already done so. 

Seeing other colleges close campuses one after another, some students began to worry about safety when students returned to campus from all over the country and world after spring break.

A petition to transition Notre Dame to remote learning was initiated online Tuesday and obtained more than 300 signatures as of Wednesday evening.

“We strongly petition the University to consider shifting all classes online for at least 14 days right after the break,” the petition said.

Erin Shang, one of the initiators, said the reason for launching the petition was because many students at Notre Dame didn’t take the coronavirus epidemic seriously enough. 

“Some friends made fun of me when I canceled my spring break plans because of coronavirus,” Shang said. “They were like, ‘Dude, why are you so uptight? This is just a flu. You gotta live your life.’” 

Shang said she also worried about the potential risk after the break, and she sent an “emotional email” to Erin Hoffmann Harding, “begging her to take some measures.” 

“However, I just got a very automatic and robotic response from her saying, ‘We’re dealing with this situation and finding solutions, please rest and we’ll be praying for you,’” Shang said. “It was at that moment that I realized one person’s voice wasn’t enough. I should bring more people to speak out.”

A large part of the signatures drive from student originally from China, Shang said. Having grown up in Beijing, she said her own thought process about the coronavirus could be different from that of other students.

“Many domestic students don’t think it’s serious because they don’t know how bad it could be,” she said. “They don’t know the medical system could run out of resources and the number of cases could just keep piling up.”

There are still domestic students who are concerned about the outbreak of coronavirus, including Larson, who is from Wisconsin.

“My grandparents live near me, and I am worried that they could potentially catch it, as they are a vulnerable population,” Larson said.

International students are concerned not only about how coronavirus is impacting their own countries but also the risks it poses for them in the United States.

“I can’t afford to get sick in the United States,” Shang said. “I don’t know if the health insurance will pay for everything. I don’t know how much it will cost if we use emergency serves, especially ambulances. We just have more financial concerns to worry about. … My parents can’t reach us because of the travel ban, and they will be worried sick if I get sick. The worst scenario, if we die here, our parents will never be able to see us again.”

Domestic students don’t have these concerns, Shang said, as they have more options of insurances and their family is right here, but international students don’t necessarily have the same luxuries.

“Sometimes I feel powerless,” she said.

Shang called the petition a way for international students and all members of the University community to empower themselves.

“Besides speaking out as a student from the Chinese community and the international community, the petition is also for all the members of the Notre Dame community,” Shang said. “I just hope the University can create a safe and healthy environment.”

When she learned Notre Dame decided to close the campus, Shang said she felt better about the situation.

“I’m really touched by the school,” Shang said. “I’m finally in relief.” 

Managing Editor Natalie Weber and Associate News Editor Serena Zacharias contributed to this report.

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