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Editorial: It’s time for better COVID-19 guidelines

As students have adjusted to a new normal of mask-wearing and social distancing on College Hill, the University has done well keeping student COVID-19 cases in check, boasting a remarkably low positivity rate. More students have been invited back to campus, and as we enter level two of campus activity, limited in-person classes are being offered for the first time since March. 

It is precisely at such a time, when the coronavirus may feel within our control, that we are reminded that our own ambition and optimism must not override caution and reason. Despite the comprehensive nature of Brown’s planning, negotiating a pandemic on a college campus remains a precarious balancing act. As policies relax and social interactions increase, we urge the University to address troubling gaps in its communication with students and its guidelines surrounding the virus. 

Just last month, the administration mistakenly sent out emails threatening suspension to registered remote learners who were accused of being in the Providence area — even when they had been thousands of miles away during the fall semester. Though the University quickly attempted to remedy the error, their mistake seems indicative of a broader organizational failing. Will the University be able to accurately identify misconduct in the case of an outbreak? Does this mistake reveal greater issues with how the administration handles the many important virus-related communications across offices like Campus Life, ResLife or the College?

The aforementioned emails were also troubling in a deeper way. While we respect and appreciate the University’s desire to minimize community spread, threatening suspension should not serve as an all-encompassing punishment for violators. It should only be done after an exhaustive review of the evidence — not in response to suspected but unconfirmed infractions. Even disregarding the mistaken recipients, will grossly punitive threats really motivate all students actually in violation to come forward? 

We urge the University to implement policies that are more in tune with student behavior. 

While threatening suspension in the above case was draconian and likely ineffective, there are other aspects of Brown’s conduct requirements that are not strict enough. 

Currently, students who are engaging in good-faith compliance with University policies can still manage to skirt the bi-weekly testing requirement. The University requires undergraduate students to track their daily symptoms and register for their biweekly COVID-19 test appointments through Healthy at School. We’d be remiss not to mention that this platform is relatively user-friendly, and that the process itself of getting tested at the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center (or 1 Davol Square) is streamlined and efficient. What is concerning, however, is the apparent lack of true enforcement of testing requirements within the program. When a student can no longer attend their appointment, Healthy at School allows you to quickly reschedule, up until the literal minute of the appointment’s start time — but what this means is that with just a few clicks, we as students can continually reschedule and delay our testing for days. 

And this doesn’t seem to trigger any concern within the system: After all, that individual is technically scheduled to come in for testing soon. Emails are sent (albeit apparently auto-generated) when appointments are completely missed or an appointment hasn’t been scheduled when a student is due. But, again, the solution is simply to pick a time slot and delay it at one’s convenience. Of course, the ability to reschedule is part of the flexibility that makes the current testing program run smoothly; when students don't abuse this, it is a great benefit for us to be able to shift our tests by a few hours or a day when a conflict comes up. So while we don’t imagine many students are deliberately abusing this, we do worry that by being so accommodating, the system makes it too easy for us to deprioritize testing — even without necessarily intending to break the rules. After all, we are all still students during this pandemic, replete with full course loads and schedules — and with the potential to place frequent testing on the back burner when our days are eaten up by midterm and finals seasons.

There are also other gaps in Brown’s testing program. For instance, students currently on leave living in the Providence area are precluded from accessing University testing. While many of these students may not maintain a daily presence on campus, it is inevitable that many will interact with their friends who do. If the goal is to truly ensure the integrity of the campus bubble, every attempt should be made to allow all students connected to campus in some way to be tested. Doing otherwise is counterproductive to the culture of health and safety Brown is trying to promote.  

There is also little guidance on how students should hold each other accountable. For example, Residential Peer Leaders living on campus are not even required to report parties “unless they are a serious risk to public health,” a poorly defined standard — and one that even public health experts have a difficult time discerning. As virtually the only source of oversight in student housing, RPLs ought to be given more concrete resources and guidelines so that they can effectively address improper behavior. 

We recognize that it is certainly unfair to place the entire burden of policing student behavior on RPLs. But both RPLs and their residents would likely benefit from a clearer description of responsibilities and an understanding of who to turn to when student behavior makes others uncomfortable. This is especially true in cases where the behavior may not be acute enough to report to the Office of Student Conduct but nonetheless subverts health and safety norms in some fashion.

But of course, the obligation to hold each other to a high standard should not fall on RPLs alone, and at the end of the day, there is also only so much that University administrators can do. We know we are not the first to say this — nor will we be the last — but there is a vital role we must all individually play in keeping each other safe. 

We understand how challenging it can be to forgo social interaction, especially when the pandemic has continued for so long. We know what it’s like to long for a day without Zoom. We are living it, too. Still, we must be willing to sacrifice some personal freedom for the sake of each other’s wellbeing. To our fellow students: Please remember, guidelines are not meant to be gamed ― they should be followed even when nobody's watching.

Ultimately, we remain cautiously optimistic about Brown’s ability to weather this storm. At the same time, the failures of other universities, not to mention our country at large, have illustrated the dangers of optimism gone awry. Brown’s present success does not indicate mastery over this pandemic, which still remains vastly unpredictable, and even its most calculated plans remain a gamble. With lives on the line, the stakes are far too high for the University and its community members to take any unnecessary risk. It’s time for practices to be updated. 

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board. This editorial was written by its editor and assistant editor, Krista Stapleford ’21 and Johnny Ren ‘23, and members Amanda Brynn ’21, Lola Olabode '21, Vicky Phan ’21 and Dylan Tian ’21.


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