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Observer Editorial: Where’s the transparency?

| Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Notre Dame Division of Student Affairs sent a campus-wide email Feb. 17 in response to a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases among the student body. In the hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, the University decided to halt all student organizations’ in-person meetings and activities through “at least Monday, March 1,” the message said.

It’s been three days since then, and officials have not offered any explicit communication or updates regarding these rules, leaving students wondering which restrictions are still in place and which have expired.

That postponement was amended in a Friday email which stated that some outdoor events would be held “if they are sponsored or co-sponsored by a University department to ensure adherence to health and safety protocols.” 

While this may represent optimism for the progression of COVID-19 prevention efforts on campus, it remains another in a series of unsatisfactory notices from University administration. These regulations come without specificity. Without any context or information on benchmarks for rule changes, these decisions appear random and incoherent. 

The announcement of allowing limited attendance at Notre Dame men’s basketball and volleyball games did not include any data or reasoning as to why this policy will not lead to a regression in the University’s COVID-19 prevention efforts. It also conflicts with the prohibition of regular in-person activities for student clubs and organizations.

While no communication from the University indicated student club gatherings bore any responsibility in the February COVID-19 case numbers, most were forced to halt their in-person activities. Some organizations, like ND Listens, have not been bound by these same restrictions, yet other groups have no indication of when operations will be able to continue as usual. It is unfortunate the community is having to ask questions on the specifics of safety guidelines rather than the University having readily available information when significant changes to campus life are made.

Another recent change to University guidelines limited undergraduate students from entering any residence hall other than their own. However, students have been able to attend Mass in any residence hall of their choice. Chapel gatherings are often larger than those of clubs and organizations, yet they are exempt from the tightened restrictions. This begs the question: Does a tabernacle help prevent coronavirus transmission?

The seemingly arbitrary nature of the administration’s protocols and decisions only contributes to the uncertainty which weighs on the mental health of the student body. Isolation has been one of the most detrimental aspects of the COVID-19 era and students have, once again, been struggling to engage with peers outside of their dorms. Though the University is beginning to offer different on-campus events, these one-time gatherings do not present the same opportunities to establish community as student organization meetings.

Without any sort of timeline — even a tentative one — or specific benchmark as to when restrictions will be lifted, students are left in the dark with little hope. At best, these decisions appear random and, at worst, they appear to be vain attempts by the administration to maintain the appearance of control. 

At times, these restrictions on club activities feel more like a punishment than a safety measure. Taking away one of the only explicit COVID-safe places students have to interact with their peers is not an effective tactic. Acknowledging that “the vast majority of students are adhering diligently to our protocols,” but implementing seemingly irrelevant restrictions that unduly punish those students because of uncontrollable off-campus activities sends a conflicting message.

Attempts at governance are ineffective when there is a lack of communication. Numerous state governors addressed their constituents daily at the outset of the pandemic; however, we have received little communication from University President Fr. John Jenkins in the recent month. Two of the only messages students have received from Jenkins this semester were a welcome back and the announcement of an on-campus vaccination site. His distance from the recently imposed rules makes us wonder about his level of connection with the student body.

We urge the University to increase transparency in regards to its decision-making processes,  update and communicate with students as to the status of restrictions and provide specific benchmarks on lifting these restrictions. 

We are more than willing to comply with any changes made to ensure the safety of everyone in the tri-campus community. All we ask is that our administrations are more forthcoming with what informs these decisions.

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