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Observer Editorial: Frankly, this is embarrassing

| Wednesday, September 30, 2020

In case you missed Notre Dame’s most recent trip through the headlines, here are the highlights: On Saturday, President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a Notre Dame Law School alumna, professor and member of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, to replace the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court of the United States. 

University President Fr. John Jenkins and Notre Dame Law School dean G. Marcus Cole both attended Barrett’s nomination ceremony. A video of Jenkins failing to follow social distancing protocols or wear a mask at the event — held in the White House Rose Garden — quickly made the rounds on social media. Cole, seated next to Jenkins at the event, was wearing a mask.

It was later reported that upon arrival at the White House, both Jenkins and Cole were directed to a room where individuals attending the ceremony were tested for COVID-19. Every guest was tested by a nasal swab prior to entering the ceremony. 

“Only when the test results returned negative were they and others in their group escorted into the Rose Garden for the ceremony,” vice president for public affairs and communications Paul Browne said in a statement to The Observer before Jenkins returned from his trip.

Despite his negative test results, Jenkins’ actions should be considered nothing less than hypocritical. 

Notre Dame students are prohibited from gathering in large groups or removing their masks in public regardless of their surveillance test results. Students, faculty and staff are also discouraged from leaving campus or gathering in large groups off-campus, which is exactly what Jenkins did Saturday in D.C. Further, students have been threatened with and received severe disciplinary action for being photographed without masks in groups far smaller than the one gathered in the Rose Garden.

It appears Jenkins made a conscious and deliberate decision to not wear a mask, thereby jeopardizing the health and safety of himself, those at the event and all those in the tri-campus and South Bend communities with whom he interacted after the ceremony.

Furthermore, Jenkins traveled to D.C. on the same day the University’s football program was originally scheduled to take on Wake Forest, a game which was postponed to Dec. 12 due to athletes testing positive for COVID-19. The number of players in quarantine and isolation climbed to 39 as of Monday. The Notre Dame football team is one of the most outward-facing, well-known groups on campus, and it is experiencing a spike in positive cases within its roster. 

Jenkins leaving South Bend to flagrantly disobey his own rules while the community he is supposed to lead is suffering creates a sense of separation between himself and everyone else. A “do as I say, not as I do” mentality is not one a University president should have in a time of crisis.

As students begin to feel the unprecedented emotional and mental strain of a semester with no break and faculty continue to make sacrifices by remaining in one place, Jenkins’ jaunt to D.C. becomes all the more frustrating. Of course the circumstances are historic, perhaps making his travel “essential” and therefore permissible according to his own guidelines, but even historic circumstances do not justify a blatant disregard for health and safety protocols.

Furthermore, rapid COVID-19 tests — such as antigen tests — have been shown to have a greater propensity for delivering false negatives than PCR tests. In fact, Notre Dame’s testing protocols require students to take both a rapid and a PCR test due to the potential of receiving a false negative result from the rapid test.

If this isn’t enough cause for concern, a report from CNN stated that two of Barrett’s colleagues in attendance at the nomination ceremony were not notified of any testing protocols, nor did they receive a test from the White House prior to the event. This is all without mentioning that Jenkins was attending a political event hosted by a president and administration whose stance on wearing masks has, at times, been in direct opposition to University policies and the advice of the national medical community.

His refusal to wear a mask, a simple action he has encouraged in countless email sign-offs to the University community, is puzzling, and we must wonder if it was due to pressure from the surrounding political environment. Regardless, this is an issue that should never be political. 

Many students and staff expressed their frustration and anger over seeing health and safety guidelines so blatantly broken, with some even resorting to reporting Jenkins on Notre Dame’s incident reporting form and others calling for his resignation.

“I know many of you have read about the White House ceremony I recently attended. I write to express my regret for certain choices I made that day and for failing to lead as I should have,” Jenkins said in an email addressed to students, faculty and staff Monday.

But what was omitted from the statement? An explicit apology. 

Saying, “I regret my error of judgment in not wearing a mask,” does not convey sufficient willingness to take ownership of his mistake. There is a difference between regret and remorse. In fact, Jenkins’ refusal to use the words “apology” or “sorry” in his email appears deliberate and conveys that he is more sorry he was caught and criticized by our community than anything else.

This is not the first time Jenkins had to answer for poor decision making. 

Before the fall semester began, Jenkins issued a similar statement — apology included — after breaking social distancing protocols in a group photo with Farley Hall residents.

“While all of the scientific evidence indicates that the risk of transmission is far lower outdoors than indoors, I want to remind you (and myself!) that we should stay at least 6 feet apart,” he said less than two months ago. “I am sorry for my poor example, and I am recommitting to do my best. I am confident you will too.”

Apparently, that first incident did not serve as enough of a reminder for Jenkins himself.

If Jenkins’ only intention was truly to “represent the University at this historic event [and] to support a faculty colleague and alumna of Notre Dame” as he said, the optics show a troubling trend of ill-advised and inconsistent decision making on the part of the University president. Lest we forget, Jenkins has stated publicly he and other University officials were preparing to send students home less than two weeks into the semester amid a spike in positive cases.

It is imperative in times such as these that leaders and others in positions of power maintain coherent messaging and lead by example. Failing to abide by health and safety protocols during a global pandemic that has taken the lives of one million people worldwide is not an appropriate representation of the Notre Dame community. In fact, it’s an embarrassment.

And, since he seems to require frequent reminders, we would like to stress to Jenkins, as well as everyone within the tri-campus community, to please:

1. Wear your mask.

2. Practice physical distancing.

3. Wash your hands regularly.

4. Complete your daily health check.

5. Show up when selected for surveillance testing.

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