In response to the spread of COVID-19 and the ever-heightening accompanying international concern, the University has announced and implemented a number of public health measures. All events with over 100 attendees must be “postponed, canceled or offered virtually;” this includes admissions tours and A Day on College Hill. All non-essential University-sponsored travel, both domestic and international, has been suspended, and students returning from China, Iran, Italy and South Korea are required to self-isolate for at least 14 days away from campus. The University also announced Monday that three Brown students are being tested for COVID-19 after travel to a venue outside of Rhode Island may have exposed them to the virus; the students are in isolation, awaiting results expected within 48 hours of the campus-wide email. That same afternoon, Gov. Gina Raimondo declared a state of emergency in Rhode Island.
Given the severity of the situation and the fiduciary responsibility that defines the relationship of University administrators to students, we believe the University’s proactive measures thus far have been appropriate and justified, and we commend them for that. But given the current environment of fear and uncertainty, we strongly urge the University to communicate its long-term contingency plans — extending as far into the future as summer break — to the greater Brown community as soon as possible.
When the University first announced its preventative measures, responses from the student body included general disapproval of the policies. Among specific criticisms, some deemed the University’s decision to cancel large events but not in-person classes contradictory and ineffective, since students would still inevitably be in close quarters in large lecture halls. Additionally, some considered the University’s response overblown because they do not think COVID-19 poses a legitimate threat to Brown’s campus. But with the news of three potential cases here, our purported bubble of protection on College Hill may not be as foolproof as we think.
Many of our undergraduate peers continue to perpetuate the notion that, as a college campus, Brown is at less risk of being impacted by the virus because our population is the picture of youth and good health. But this limited view fails to account for a number of very real groups that are part of our community: immunocompromised students, older faculty and staff and students who call affected areas home, to name a few. In this vein, the University has been prudent in its established measures so far, realizing that transmissive and asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 do pose a viable threat to our community. This type of response is especially important in light of the fact that the nature of campus living makes college campuses a unique breeding ground for viral transmissions.
As each day passes, more COVID-19 news from around the world reaches students’ fingertips. Other schools continue to cancel events, limit travel and even suspend in-person classes, in addition to instructing students not to return from spring break for indeterminate amounts of time. While these reactions may be necessary interventions to curb the spread of the virus, they also inevitably leave students with dread, wondering about future potential negative impacts — not just on their health, but also on major life events, such as graduation, summer internships and future living situations. Many students have begun to ask themselves questions such as “Will my family still have a graduation ceremony to attend?” or “If I have to stay in Providence for the summer due to the virus, will Brown provide resources for me?” We urge the University now to go beyond some of its peer institutions by acknowledging these fears and providing as many details as possible, as soon as possible, to address and mitigate these broader concerns. We believe the University should prioritize addressing three areas of concern in particular.
First, if a student on campus tests positive for COVID-19 — especially relevant given Monday’s announcement of three potential cases — and is told to self-quarantine, what does the quarantine process entail? Will the student be moved from their current residence hall? Will Dining Services deliver meals to a quarantined student if the student cannot provide their own food? Will other important campus resources like Counseling and Psychological Services still be available to them? These are all questions students are asking about the undefined self-isolation process that could seemingly befall them with little notice. These questions become all the more salient in light of the possibility that affected students may be in quarantine if or when the University decides to encourage people to return home.
Second, if the University cancels all in-person classes and urges all students to return home, will Brown have options for students who cannot do so? Given that a majority of our peer institutions have already decided to take this step, many in the Brown community are well aware that we might be next. This question is particularly urgent for low-income students who may not have the resources to immediately relocate, as well as for students who may not feel comfortable returning home due to their family situations and students who may have to return to locations, both domestic and abroad, where the effects of COVID-19 are even more widespread. For instance, Amherst College announced Monday that all students are expected to evacuate campus by March 16 — but if a student is unable to leave campus, they can petition to remain in their dorm to continue remote learning.
The third set of concerns that should be promptly addressed is the most long-term. If COVID-19 escalates and students are either strongly advised or required to leave campus for the rest of the semester, will the University have resources in place to aid students who will suddenly have to figure out housing, employment and financials for the rest of the semester — and potentially the summer?
In fact, summer uncertainty could create a whole other set of problems for students. While we know we cannot expect the administration to predict the status of COVID-19 a few months from now, the possibility of the global health emergency preventing students from making summer plans until April or May — or derailing existing plans entirely — is a realistic concern. Does the University expect to be able to offer its own typical summer programming, and will it assist students whose summer plans fall through?
Though these scenarios are not an exhaustive list of possibilities for how COVID-19 could impact Brown in the months to come, they are immediate possibilities that have worried our peers and should thus be directly addressed by the administration. In addition to outlining various contingencies, the University should make clear exactly what circumstances would trigger the enactment of any given plan — whether one confirmed case on campus, a certain number of confirmed cases in Rhode Island or otherwise.
To our fellow classmates and University community members: We urge you to thoughtfully consider the announcements of evolving University action as driven by the community’s best interest. More importantly, we must be vigilant and sensitive to the situation of those around us. Even if you believe your own health is not at risk, in an environment where any number of individuals could be asymptomatically carrying the virus and passing it on to their immunocompromised peers, we all have the obligation to carry out best health practices by washing our hands, watching where we cough or sneeze and practicing social distancing when necessary. As a community, we are also obligated to be sensitive to how COVID-19 is impacting others with whom we share our campus. Be aware of your privilege if home is nearby and recognize how paranoia is giving way to racism and xenophobia affecting those who do not share that privilege.
In the days to come, more cases of COVID-19 around the country will likely be discovered and Brown community members will continue to anxiously consider the future. We acknowledge the unprecedented nature of the situation, which has required new levels of response on a nearly day-by-day basis. Though we recognize that this is an evolving situation and the University’s response requires deliberation, we hope the administration will take the opportunity to address student concerns as much as it possibly can.
Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. This editorial was written by its editor, Krista Stapleford ’21, and members Amanda Brynn ’21, Riley Pestorius ’21, Vicky Phan ’21 and Dylan Tian ’21.