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Let the students stay

| Friday, August 21, 2020

I read Stephanie McKay’s letter “Send the students home” in Wednesday’s Observer and agree in certain respects:

1. We cannot blame the students for doing what students do and wanting to be around each other — after all, they haven’t seen each other since March.

Summer break felt like an eternity when it was only May through August. I can only imagine how it felt this past spring and summer and how much they missed each other and being home on campus.

2. The rise in cases once all of the students returned to campus was predictable.

Surely, no one expected thousands of people to come together from across the country without any cases on campus, right? So why, now that this occurred, is there an uproar? Wasn’t this anticipated and planned for accordingly?

3. Notre Dame has the responsibility to ensure the safety and security of its community — students, faculty and staff — and needs to put additional safeguards in place.

Young people need to feel safe to be able to explore and learn in a productive manner. If students do not feel safe, what does the University need to do? And if they do feel safe, safer than they might be at home, why shouldn’t they be offered the chance to stay on campus?

The writer speaks of faulty assumptions and yet makes one in her own argument, which I cannot ignore as a scientist. Noting that 15 of the 30 cases tested Sunday were positive and therefore deducing that there is a 50% positivity rate is a wild assumption. Were these 30 random students walking across campus completely asymptomatic? Or were these 30 cases who showed up for tests because they felt sick after attending the same party? Those are completely different samples that would lead to very different expectations. In the latter scenario, it would make sense that there was a higher positivity rate. You cannot conclude from that information that there is a 50% positivity rate on campus.

Further, what Notre Dame proposed and has implemented is in fact working. The cases reported have been traced to off-campus parties where neither mask-wearing nor social distancing was observed. No cases have been explicitly linked to classrooms, dining halls or sports practices as Notre Dame mandates and enforces both of these scientifically proven practices on campus to greatly reduce the risk of transmission. Why not mandate a curfew that will actually reduce the chance of spread at parties where we know the risk is actually deriving, rather than give up on a sound plan that is working and allows the students to remain on campus?

In addition, what about the mental health of the student population? I am a clinical psychologist specializing in emotional resilience, coping with crisis and overcoming trauma. I can assure you that students are at great risk to their emotional well-being if they are taught to hide, to run from challenges and to give in to fear. That does not mean that I condone recklessness. It means that Notre Dame has an obligation to create a safe environment where students can explore, learn and excel. Will they make mistakes? Absolutely. And then they try again. The University’s plan was good, and there is room for improvement. It’s a dialectic. Both can be true. Now that the University has found those weak links, it needs to adapt the plan and make it better. Teach students through example in this very moment that when something goes wrong, you don’t give up. You don’t bury your head and walk away. You figure it out. Isn’t that the main motto of our Fighting Irish?

The definition of grit is not to avoid failure but rather to learn from it and to move forward, wiser and stronger. When teaching emotional resilience, I teach people to approach their fears, not run from them. What Notre Dame taught me was to recognize a challenge and then meet it head on with courage and confidence. This is a unique moment and certainly one that students will remember for the rest of their lives. Notre Dame needs to create a safe environment on campus and allow students to remain in their dorms — even if classes are remote — so students can learn, explore and grow into strong and competent leaders of tomorrow.

From a public health standpoint, far more damage will be done by sending home thousands of people who have potentially been infected to spread the virus among their families and communities. They will need to fly, take trains or buses, carpool, etc., only creating a scenario for far more widespread transmission than what has occurred. Campus is a controlled environment. And outdoor activities like the Fisher Regatta and pumpkin painting, tie dying t-shirts, outdoor prayer services, movies in the stadium and study sessions in dorm lounges can still happen, creating a sense of normalcy, security, happiness, connection and strength. Or, you can send the students home to be disconnected, scared, overwhelmed, sad and defeated.

Mental health is often forgotten and only discussed when there is a highly publicized event like a mass shooting or a suicide of a public figure. It gets some press for a minute and then goes back to its home on the back burner of everyone’s mind until the next tragedy. Don’t let this semester be the next tragedy that creates or exacerbates mental illness in thousands of young adults. There is an opportunity here to promote strength, courage, resilience and connection and to actually pay attention to mental wellness at a pivotal time. Let’s not prioritize physical health at the total expense of mental health. We need to create a situation that considers what is best for the well-being of the student body, and maybe one size does not fit all.

Notre Dame commercials often ask: What are you fighting for? I urge the University to fight for both the physical and mental well-being of the students by continuing scientifically-driven solutions, such as mask wearing, social distancing and frequent sanitizing. I encourage the University to meet the challenge presented by adapting the plan to new information and limiting opportunities for large gatherings in enclosed places that increase risk. And I implore Notre Dame to seize this moment as a unique learning opportunity to teach resilience and courage and to create connection and security for students instead of promoting fear and giving up in the face of a challenge. The students are depending on you and looking to you for guidance and hope. Please, do not give up the fight. After all, we are the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Let’s not forget that.


Joanna Fava, Ph.D.

Class of 2001

Aug. 20

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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