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Stop thanking Fr. Jenkins

| Tuesday, August 25, 2020

When I initially planned this column, it was going to be a self-indulgent “we’re a family, so stop being selfish and wear your mask” piece. I planned to extrapolate the “Notre Dame Family” moniker and tie it back to our return to campus, in an attempt to wield the importance of personal responsibility as a rhetorical tool. 

But, as the past two weeks and a surge of cases have shown, the problems inherent in our comeback have not been entirely the fault of students. Yes, a large portion of cases have been tied to large off-campus gatherings and those who participated in them are morally culpable for their actions. Yes, on-campus students are gathering in large numbers maskless on the quads and their decisions are important too. Yes, personal responsibility exists. 

However, the proliferation of petitions and Instagram posts that beg students to show gratitude to the administration for “allowing us to be here” instead of calling them to be more transparent, develop a more robust plan and test all of us (often!) is not only a privileged position to take but a dangerous one. 

The assertion that being back on campus is a gift to all students is absurd. Some of our peers are immunocompromised and are more likely to not only become infected with COVID-19 but also to experience more severe symptoms. Some live with chronic mental illnesses (myself included), and I can tell you firsthand that being near more people these two weeks than I have in five months has increased my obsessive-compulsive behaviors and anxiety responses dramatically. Some of our peers come from communities that have been traumatized by the virus at a disproportionate level. Some come from families whose financial situations have become uncertain due to loss of income. 

If that last paragraph didn’t make it clear, allow me to be explicit: This virus is causing intersectional aftershocks. It is leaving people not only physically ill but also stuck in a myriad of complicated and traumatic experiences. Our University’s reopening plan failed to address this intersectionality and left room for few accommodations. 

We were not given enough options for academic continuity this semester. Our “choice” was between returning to campus and taking a leave of absence. For many students, a leave of absence is not an acceptable option. Some depend on financial aid during the academic year as a means of survival. Some members of our community must return to unstable or unsafe environments when school is not in session and need to be on campus to be most supported. Others feel pressured by their future professions to stay in school at all costs. In any case, the options given to students were not complete. Many students who would have gladly taken a semester of remote learning were essentially forced to return to in-person class. 

Yes, according to University releases and personal conversations, most students wanted to return to campus. However, in a circumstance like we are currently experiencing (read: global pandemic) the chaos of the rest of the world gave many of us false hope for what this semester would look like. I do not believe the University did an adequate job of presenting the reality of this semester and preparing a contingency plan for how to act in the case of an outbreak. 

It’s not that they had no time to prepare. In May, Fr. Jenkins wrote in the New York Times, explaining why science alone could not inform Notre Dame’s reopening decision. He explained that the University has a moral imperative to remain open and in-person, so our education can positively impact the world around us. He said our return to South Bend was “worth the risk.” 

After two weeks on campus, over 400 positive COVID-19 cases have been introduced to the South Bend community and classes are no longer in-person. I’m no scientist, but I do believe that this outcome could have been predicted. I also know that nearly 400 positive coronavirus cases have nothing but a negative impact on those around us. I don’t think our week and a half of in-person classes was worth it.

Since the first spike of cases last Wednesday (Aug. 19), when we hit 147, our case total has more than doubled but the amount of testing per-day has decreased. The entire student body was only tested before we arrived on campus and many of us received negative results over a week before returning to campus. Again, I’m not a scientist, but I know that the virus spreads very quickly and incubates at different rates for each person. So, while someone may have been negative 10 days before returning to campus, there’s nothing to say they weren’t exposed in the days before returning to campus or even the day they returned (when hundreds of untested family members were moving students in and campus was full of people). 

For these reasons, I am not convinced that we wouldn’t have seen a similar spike even if every student were complying with the rules perfectly. Due to the nature of this virus and its tendency to present without symptoms, we have no way of knowing how far it has spread on campus if we aren’t testing everyone frequently. If Notre Dame has any hope of successfully returning to in-person instruction, the entire campus community needs to be tested multiple times throughout these two weeks and for the remainder of the semester.

If my position was not clear before, the Notre Dame administration has not done anything to deserve unwavering gratitude from students, faculty and staff. If anything, they deserve unwavering criticism and consistent calls to better action. Blaming students alone for the spread of COVID-19 on campus does nothing but pit peers against one another in a time where community is especially necessary. 

Students taking the fall and signing a commitment to behave more responsibly means nothing when the damage has already been done. COVID-19 is spreading around our campus. If we aren’t all tested, there’s no way of knowing how far it’s gone or how far it will go. 

To conclude, I do not love it here. I am scared to be here. I am embarrassed to be here. My University is endangering our community, to prove some “moral superiority” to the world. Conducting fewer tests and displaying fewer cases doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job. Forcing your students to return without a solid plan to keep them safe doesn’t make you brave. Putting them in a position where they fear what they’ll do when it comes time to write one another’s obituaries makes you cruel.

I will never be thankful for that.

Ashton Weber is a junior with lots of opinions. She is an economics major with a minor in sociology and she can often be found with her nose in a book. If you want to chat about intersectional feminism, baking blueberry scones, growing ZZ plants or anything else, she’d love to hear from you. Reach Ashton at [email protected] or @awebz01 on Twitter.

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About Ashton Weber

Ashton is a current Sophomore majoring in Economics and FTT, and minoring in the Gallivan Journalism Program. She is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, but now resides in Flaherty Hall. Feel free to contact her about anything... literally, anything. She is often bored.

Contact Ashton