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Patterson '23: Stop the theatrics. Pause reopening plans before it's too late

Almost everyday I think about the words of President Christina Paxson P’19 in her April op-ed entitled “College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall, Here’s How We Do it.” It’s a snazzy headline, to be sure. It tugs at our heart strings for a return to “normal,” but it feels divorced from my reality of life on campus then and now. 

In March, when the great college exodus of 2020 commenced around the country, I opted to stay. I felt safe in the de-densified setting. The school assumed responsibility for anyone remaining on campus who might fall ill from COVID-19. There were designated rooms for quarantine. The University has close ties to local hospitals and a comprehensive healthcare center on site. As a non-traditionally aged student who lived independently prior to moving on campus for the “real” college experience, I frankly didn’t have anywhere else to go and I didn’t want to go back to my mom’s because she is immunocompromised. 

Though I did choose to stay this summer, my exposure to campus living in a COVID-19 era has motivated me to leave this fall. I recognize that Brown has attempted to be thorough in its strategy for re-opening. But after observing the University struggle with logistical management this summer, the behavior of my peers and the vastly different reality that awaits students, I can only conclude that bringing students back to campus this fall will be a subpar experience at best. 

The University did a lot early on — from providing University-funded movers to giving all students cleaning supplies — to support students’ transition to safe, socially-distanced housing in the spring. But fissures emerged as spring blossomed into summer. 

Groups of unmasked custodians started cleaning empty rooms and facilities management would often send workers to do inspections and repairs with little or no notice at all. We were told that common spaces, hallways, laundry rooms, stairwells etc. would be cleaned daily.  I lugged my own Lysol wipes to the laundry room and personally cleaned all the machines before cleaning my clothes because surfaces did not appear to be clean. 

While these experiences may not be indicative of everyone's experience this summer or of what specifically will happen this fall, I am deeply concerned about what these blunders say about Brown’s ability to manage its coronavirus response — and the implications for students who return this fall. While I concede that Brown’s “Plan For a Healthy and Safe 2020-2021” is an epidemiological work of art, theory and practice often diverge. Meeting the expectations of the extensive plan will require a herculean amount of coordination and resources at a time when hiring freezes and budget cuts already impose challenging limitations.

I love Brown, and I know the administration is trying its best, but certain behaviors I witnessed make me legitimately concerned. For example, in picking up my mail and grab-and-go meals, I felt that people didn’t know what six feet was. Many moved closer when I tried to pull away. It could just be instinctual; humans like to be close to other humans. But many forget that six feet is literally a minimum and if it is possible to stay further away from others, you should. On numerous occasions, groups of unmasked students entered the laundry room talking loudly and not social distancing. To avoid this scenario, I started washing my clothes between the hours of 1 - 4 a.m.

I can’t completely blame my peers. Technically, the state mask order mandates that everyone wears a mask in a public place, both indoors and out, but how do we define “public”? Will people wear masks in the hallways outside their rooms where there is little ventilation and infectious aerosols may linger in the air? How about in the laundry room where multiple students touch the same surfaces? My experiences make me wary. I observed no one wearing masks inside the dorms, perhaps because for many these aren’t considered public spaces, but personal ones.

What's more, it would be naive to think that students won’t try to compensate for the absence of normal social events like sports games and student clubs. When this happens, will students remember to wear a mask and stay six feet apart, or will they operate under a false illusion of safety? Who will be there to encourage safe behavior when some students decide to push the limits? These considerations will become even more critical when external conditions make the virus easier to transmit, such as when temperatures drop and people spend more time indoors.

Even when the rules aren’t openly flouted, they can be bent. Not all infractions will take the form of raucous frat parties. Many will be more subtle, as students host “small” gatherings that end up being not-so-small or even cross-bubble study groups. Despite repeated emails from Residential Life over the summer admonishing students to comply with guidelines, I repeatedly saw many not do so. 

But student behavior aside, I also worry that the University hasn’t given sufficient consideration to students’ mental health. For example, mental health and robust support to address it were not mentioned in Paxson's Op-Ed, Brown’s Plan for A Healthy and Safe 2020-2021 or anywhere on the designated webpage for addressing mitigation efforts. This silence is concerning since students are more likely to experience adverse health impacts stemming from poor mental health and increased risk of suicide related to the pandemic than they are from the virus itself.

Furthermore, wouldn’t any potential boomerang between in-person and online courses if the University pivots between the two to respond to cases be disruptive to the learning process and a sense of stability? The pandemic has us already feeling out of control, but my mental health has been wrecked in an environment full of so many uncertainties: increased risk of infection, increased surveillance and limited choice. 

The only way to truly ensure safety is to remain largely in isolation, which could pose arguably the most significant mental health burden on students. And so while many students may hope to return to campus to avoid loneliness, it could be the very thing that leads to heightened feelings of alienation — especially for those who choose not to flout the rules. Seeing friends less frequently and not being able to hug or get near them when I did see them over the summer made social life feel like a hologram. I am here, but not really here.

I also recognize that students may be wishing to return to campus to restore some normalcy to their lives or preserve what remains of their college experience. But I’ve been here. I know what it’s like. It will be a shadow of what it once was. Campus eateries will be void of the loud chatter and frenzy that accompany eating periods. Weekend activities outside of Providence, visits to nearby Boston and cultural institutions like museums will be non-existent. Without those amenities, what are we coming back to? 

We must make an honest assessment and adjust our expectations to reality before it's too late. I admonish the administration to find innovative ways to make remote learning more engaging as well as create opportunities for an in-person, cross-national or even global learning community.  

 Despite my reservations, I applaud the University for prioritizing the return of students who have nowhere else to go. I was one of those students and, despite any  inconveniences, the population is small enough to be manageable. However, trying to manage a population that is any larger worries me.  While I am confident Brown will fare better than many other colleges in containing outbreaks on campus, better than most still isn’t compatible with my level of risk tolerance.

Having been on campus in this environment, I can tell you that it feels like a ticking time bomb. We’ve seen this story play out repeatedly over the past few weeks: College reopens, outbreaks start, in-person classes are canceled and students are sent home ... again. 

I hope I’m wrong, but I’m getting out of here in case I’m not, not just for my physical health, but my mental health as well. I urge administrators to carefully reconsider reopening plans and for students that don’t absolutely need to be here, to carefully consider doing the same.

Telijah Patterson '23 can be reached at telijah_patterson@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

 

Correction: A previous version of this op-ed stated that "The College did a lot early on — from providing University-funded movers to giving all students cleaning supplies —" when in fact, the op-ed was referencing actions of the University, not just the College. The Herald regrets the error.



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