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Brown’s Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force members outline experience, challenges

Committee established in the summer oversaw plans for students' return to campus

In April, Brown created the Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force: a 14-person committee charged with giving high-level administrators recommendations for developing a public health plan for reopening in the fall. 

Five core members of the task force, including faculty and students, spoke to The Herald about their experience working on the plan over the summer, which included diving into a wide range of issues while tackling a constantly changing external environment. 

In order to function most effectively, the task force was divided into short-term and long-term subcommittees that work on key areas surrounding campus life, diversity and inclusion, public health and education, wrote Eric Estes, co-chair of the task force and vice president for campus life, wrote in an email to The Herald.

Specific subcommittees focused on a range of these topics, including classroom spaces, cleaning, dining, extracurricular events, move-in, orientation and supplies of personal protective equipment. 

Long-term subcommittees included testing and contact tracing, education and prevention, housing, equity and diversity/student support, accommodations for vulnerable populations and coordination with the state. The subcommittees also brought experts and students in to formulate more informed and inclusive recommendations, which would then be passed on to the Office of the President and handed to implementation groups to put into action, according to Estes.

The members of the task force were selected by President Christina Paxson P’19 through the form of invitation, recommendation and nomination. 

"I was quite honored to be asked (by Paxson) to help the University respond to the COVID crisis," said Emily Oster, professor of Economics and Public Policy, who served as the co-chair of the Task Force. Among the interviewees, Estes and Elizabeth Doherty, deputy provost for Academic Affairs, were directly invited by Paxson to join the task force.

The task force also included one graduate and one undergraduate student representative.

Graduate student representative Kathleen Kuesters GS'21 said that she was recommended by a PhD student whose name she did not disclose, and was later invited by Paxson to join the committee after she provided her background in epidemiology and other relevant information. 

Undergraduate student representative Maria Guerrero Martinez '21 got involved through a different process. "The administrators nominated students, and out of a pool of candidates, they chose me," said Martinez. Being able to "look at Brown, and how such a big institution is getting ready to bring people back (to campus) is a great opportunity," she added, noting that the University’s plans will not only affect her and her friends, but also the Providence community.

The committee members of the task force came from diverse backgrounds and have contributed different perspectives to the recommendations. Experts such as Adam Levine, associate professor of emergency medicine, and Vanessa Britto, associate vice president for campus life and executive director of health services, were able to offer suggestions from a public health perspective. 

Oster mentioned that her knowledge as a health economist gives her "a sense of being able to understand what (the experts) were saying."  She said she would refer to these experts when questions related to public health arose. 

On the other hand, Doherty worked more with the recommendations related to academics, as she "had more knowledge of the curriculum than public health." 

Martinez, who plays on the Brown Women Soccer Team, compared the committee meeting to a match. "I honestly approached every meeting as a practice, where you have to bring your 100 percent (attention). You need to be able to make it to every meeting,” she said because “so many things could change from one day to the next." 

Committee members also discussed challenges they encountered during the planning process. Multiple members mentioned the difficulty of keeping up with rapidly changing public health guidelines. 

"The major impact of the external considerations was whether it was actually safe to bring people back to a residential campus," Doherty said. "To my mind, it was really the external situation that shifted more than any of our internal deliberations,” and reopening only became feasible once conditions changed. 

Another difficulty, especially for Kuesters and Martinez, was how to better speak for the concerns of a more general student body. For Kuesters, "it was making sure that graduate students were represented, and that our concerns were heard," she said. 

Martinez found it especially hard to speak for all undergraduates, which includes students who come from diverse backgrounds and a range of situations. 

"I don't want to impose my own views,” she said. “At the beginning, I was reaching out to a lot of people outside of my circle, talking to them and understanding what their worries were." 

Being able to attend multiple subcommittees as a student representative and also as a committee member offered her the opportunity to approach the issue from both the student and the administrative perspective, she said. This helped her understand both the weight of the decisions and also the frustrations coming from students. 

She said she felt her opinions and recommendations were valued by the committee.

As of now, the task force has been dissolved and the recommendations have largely been passed on to the operation stage.

"The president will decide what further information she needs, but our hope is that the kinds of recommendations we have made are sufficiently general that she will be able to use (them) in a lot of situations, even if things are not exactly the same," Oster said.

The University has now established the Covid-19 Campus Activity Level Review Team which will monitor the state of the pandemic to make recommendations to Paxson about continuing with the phased reopening plan.

"It is important that people follow the guidelines, especially when people are coming back from different parts of the country and different parts of the world,” Kuesters said. “It's not just about not wanting to get sick, it's also about protecting other people.”


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