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Columns, Opinions

Ruzicka ’21: Where is Brown’s Plan B?

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Last week, on Sept. 10, 2020, President Christina Paxson P’19 sent an email to the Brown community announcing that the University would be moving forward with Phase 2 of its reopening plans. Under this direction, undergraduate sophomores, juniors and seniors who elect to return to campus will move in beginning Sept. 18, participate in a quiet period until Oct. 4 and begin in-person instruction on Oct. 5. Graduate level classes resume in-person even earlier, on Sept. 16. Despite the low numbers of cases currently on campus and extensive discussion of safety protocols, the absence of any mention of a back-up plan in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus or in Providence is deeply concerning.

Though there has been plenty of reassurance from the administration that the University’s plan is safe and will successfully avoid an outbreak, their plan has not been tested under the conditions it is meant to sustain. There have been just 13 positive cases on campus since Aug. 24, 2020 when the University began its testing program, but these numbers have been produced under very specific circumstances. The University has asked all employees who can work from home to continue doing so and students who are living on campus have been quarantined, only leaving their dorms to pick up food from dining halls and receive COVID-19 tests. Students have had no in-person classes, have been instructed not to attend extracurricular or social activities and are even restricted from using residence hall kitchens.

Of course, there are sure to be students who defy these restrictions, but with a very limited number of students on campus, those rule-breakers don’t have a wildly detrimental impact. If, however, we assume that the proportion of rule-breakers in the campus population is constant, then bringing more students back to campus will result in having more rule-breakers, which can only increase the number of positive cases. For instance, imagine if 2 percent of students refuse to follow safety protocols. With 100 students on campus, two of them would be considered rule-breakers and could contribute to the spread of COVID-19. When 1,000 students return to campus, those two students become 20 students, causing a much greater disruption in the public health landscape. The University has said that they will do their best to regulate student movement, only allowing certain classes to be in-person and heavily restricting extracurricular activities, but it is simply impossible to micromanage every member of the University’s campus, especially when a large portion of students live in off-campus housing. Furthermore, despite warnings of suspension and other punishments, some students may choose to return to the Providence area without notifying the University, leaving them beyond the reach of infection control efforts like quiet period and asymptomatic testing.

Ultimately, large numbers of Brown students returning to campus in September puts students, faculty, staff and the broader Providence community at risk. Not only will students add to the sheer number of people living and interacting in Providence, but they also hail from a multitude of locations around the world, all with different rates of infection and safety protocols. Students will have to quarantine once on campus, but they first travel by car, bus, train, plane and other means to arrive. This travel exposes both students and countless people along each student’s route to potential COVID-19 carriers and disproportionately exposes transportation workers and others in the greater Providence area, increasing the likelihood of spreading COVID-19 to communities near College Hill.

The University needs a contingency plan in the case of a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak on campus or in Providence. Looking at the outcomes for other college campuses, it’s obvious that a spike in cases seems practically inevitable. The University has prepared 180 quarantine rooms for students to use if they test positive, but with some colleges reporting hundreds or thousands of cases, this may not be enough. Samford University, a school half the size of Brown with just 3,591 undergraduate students and a more suburban campus, has seen almost 200 confirmed cases. It is integral to the safety of students, faculty, staff and Providence community members that the University has a plan for a scenario in which it cannot simply isolate individuals. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for a repeat of its botched efforts in March 2020.

The University appears to have two options for a back-up plan if there is a dangerous COVID-19 outbreak on or around College Hill; however, neither is a perfect fix. First, the University could evacuate all students who have the means to operate remotely from their home locations. Students who do not have access to an environment conducive to collegiate study outside of Brown could stay on campus through a petition process, but they would be confined by the same restrictions currently employed for quiet period.

It might seem logical to remove as many people as possible from the reaches of COVID-19 when an outbreak arises, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that evacuating students from college campuses is, “the worst thing you can do” because it risks spreading the virus while they travel and to the home of every single student who leaves.

As an alternative to an evacuation, administrators and staff could arrange to have enough physical and human resources to quarantine every student on campus indefinitely. This plan would essentially constitute a semester carried out under quiet period restrictions, where students are regularly tested and only leave their residence halls in order to receive COVID-19 tests and pick up food. All courses and extracurricular activities would be conducted online and all faculty and staff that have the ability to work from home would do so.

Quarantining students indefinitely is the safest option in the event of an outbreak, but comes at a high cost — not just for students’ social lives and college experience — and is not foolproof. Financially, it is incredibly expensive to maintain the level of care needed for students to quarantine safely in dormitories. New facilities staff would likely be hired to keep dorms and other spaces clean, dining staff would be responsible for feeding thousands of students in a to-go format and the frequency of COVID-19 testing may need to be increased. For students who are symptomatic but not in need of hospitalization, there is a need for an even higher level of personal care. Additionally, though the University can more or less control the activities of students living on campus, they cannot surveil students living off campus in the same way, leaving those students and the Providence community vulnerable. Those without access to Brown Health Services would have to utilize local Providence hospital systems, which would be overwhelmed with patients even if the infection rate is just 10 percent over a 12-month period.

No matter what plan administrators settle on, it is vital that they communicate their intentions to the Brown community. Thus far, the University has been painfully lacking in transparency, leaving students anxious, fearful and suspicious of administrators’ motives. Acknowledging the gaps in its current plan for Phase 2 and being forthright with possible solutions is a tiny step toward regaining student trust.

Emilia Ruzicka ’21 can be reached at emilia_ruzicka@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. My 10 year old son’s answer: Hop straight to Plan C – close!

  2. The author is a college senior with far more common sense and reasoning powers than most of the experts and powers-that-be that are making life-and-death decisions for all of us.

  3. We must stay isolated and locked down until no one gets sick or dies anymore. 15 days to slow the spread has turned into perpetual fear mongering. Whatever happened to college students who could think rationally or even (gasp) rebel against clueless authorities?

    • Oh, Karen, please. Nearly a million people have died worldwide of covid-19, including almost 200,000 Americans. The writer of this article is rebelling against the recklessness of those institutions which are not taking this massive death toll seriously.

      • The real recklessness is throwing hundreds of millions of people back into poverty and causing severe mental health strains in the name of “safety” for a disease that is almost harmless for young, healthy people.

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