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Send the students home

| Wednesday, August 19, 2020

I write this as an alumna, as a public health professional and as someone who has worked on infectious disease: Notre Dame needs to immediately return to remote learning for the remainder of the semester and develop a comprehensive plan to return its students safely home.

It must be emphasized that the outbreak at Notre Dame is not the fault of the students. While I have been glad to see that the University is taking a non-punitive approach to contact tracing, any punishments for student behavior is the wrong approach. Students and staff are not at fault for the spread of coronavirus — inadequate testing, tracing and isolation measures are.

The next two weeks of virtual learning and campus restrictions provide Notre Dame with the opportunity to lead. The University must develop a comprehensive plan for sending students home that does not increase transmission and exacerbate outbreaks beyond Notre Dame, which would lead to the double tragedy of students inadvertently infecting their loved ones and broader home communities.

As it stands today, any plan or hope to re-open in a couple weeks seems to be based on the presumption that further campus restrictions will create conditions where it is safe to open. I am skeptical that conditions will be substantially different two weeks from now, given the high levels of community coronavirus transmission, the inherent nature of student housing and campus interactions and the already widespread prevalence of coronavirus in the campus population. Instead of expending effort on a re-opening plan that may very well fail, Notre Dame should lead the way towards a safe, virtual fall for students and develop improved plans for the following semesters.

A study in early August showed that students must be tested at least two to three times a week to keep the virus in check — a far more rigorous approach than that what is being done now. Instead, the University has resorted to blaming students for its own failures. The truth is, students were set up to fail, and the University has individualized and privatized what is fundamentally a public, systemic problem.

If Notre Dame could not open without the understanding that students will behave like students, it never should have opened at all. It should not plan to re-open again until it can ensure that the onus is not on the students to keep the University safe, but the University has put in the correct safeguards to ensure student safety, despite individual behavior.

This sequence of events should never have happened, and I am beyond ashamed of Notre Dame for allowing it. This outbreak was entirely predictable. In May, I wrote about what would occur, when the University first released its plan — a plan that was based on several faulty assumptions — the first of which was continually decreasing community transmission. In fact, as has been readily apparent for several months, the opposite has happened — cases have risen hundreds-fold — yet Notre Dame pressed on.

However, it did not take an epidemiologist to know that congregating thousands of students while millions of cases of coronavirus swarmed the country would lead to an explosion of new cases.

This is due to the hallmark of the coronavirus pandemic — exponential growth. Each infected person can spread the disease to two to three others (though these numbers can change with effective social distancing and other non-pharmaceutical interventions). Not only does exponential growth accelerate with time, it also accelerates more quickly depending on how many people are infected. This concept is key to understanding why this disease continues to grow without comprehensive testing, tracing and isolation of cases.

Pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission also drives spread — that is, those who have not yet or may never exhibited symptoms can and will still infect others. Re-opening plans that are overly reliant on symptomatic spread — such as “daily health checks” — will inevitably miss cases.

On Aug. 16, 15 of the 30 people tested for coronavirus at Notre Dame were positive, an astounding 50% positivity rate (the WHO suggests a positivity rate of no higher than 5%). Positivity rates indicate what true community transmission is and whether restrictions need to be strengthened or relaxed. Think of it like fishing — if half of time you cast your rod you immediately caught a fish, you’d (rightly) assume there are a lot of fish in the lake. The same holds true for positivity rates — a high rate means there are a lot more cases in the broader community not being found.

I’m sympathetic to the situation in which many colleges find themselves — after years of austerity, public universities find themselves facing further budget cuts without a fall semester, and some small liberal arts colleges face closing if they decide not to return. But with a $13.8 billion endowment, that is not Notre Dame.

I don’t write this with any sense of schadenfreude. I am indignant and upset on behalf of all students, staff and the broader South Bend community. These students must suffer due to the myopic planning and greed of the Notre Dame administration who seemed to care nothing more than to line the coffers of the University under the false pretenses of perpetuating a religious education. Indeed, the veneer of Catholic Social Teaching that Father Jenkins has used to justify the decision to reopen – the call for students to sacrifice, to accept “even lethal risks — for the good of society” is perhaps the most shameful aspect of this whole situation.

In May, Father Jenkins said that “science [alone] cannot provide the answer” of whether to reopen. But science provides the vocabulary we use to describe reality. And the reality is that in the context of asymptomatic spread and exponential growth, the University’s plan is inadequate. Cases will continue to rise, and contra the invocation of Catholic Social Teaching, the most vulnerable in the community will be the ones who disproportionately suffer.

One can only hope that the University repents for its sins and does what is right, which in this case is to care for the lives of its students by turning to remote learning for the remainder of the semester and ensuring students’ safety and well-being, and the safety and well-being of the broader community from here on out.

Stephanie McKay, MPH

class of 2014

Aug. 18

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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