The course of the COVID-19 pandemic on campus has been characterized by continual adjustments, with community members bracing themselves for the inevitable changes in University protocol brought by fluctuating public health conditions.
For some students, these changes have prompted feelings of confusion and frustration, especially in moments of sudden and significant changes to University procedures. In a Sept. 13 email to the Brown community, the University announced new short-term restrictions, including a pause of in-person dining — which has since resumed — increased testing and mask-wearing requirements and the limiting of “social gatherings for undergraduate students … to no more than five people,” Provost Richard Locke P’18, Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06 and Vice President for Campus Life Eric Estes wrote.
For many members of the campus community, the announcement of limitations on in-person social gatherings created significant confusion, especially among clubs and student organizations who had to rework their plans to fit campus health guidelines. Campus group leaders received an email from the Student Activities Office shortly after the announcement of short-term restrictions stating that all student group activities would have to take place virtually, effective immediately. The next day, Locke, Carey and Estes sent a “clarifying” email to the Brown community, noting that certain in-person meetings, with strict mask compliance, would still be allowed, namely classes, athletics, University events and student group activities.
Campus has since returned to some looser restrictions, including the Sept. 24 reopening of in-person dining. Still, many students and student organizations cited frustration with having to suddenly change their meetings and future plans, only to have campus procedures change back soon after.
The Herald spoke with members of the student body on navigating these shifts and the impact it has had on their experience at Brown.
For Fashion@Brown Co-Presidents Emma Rosenkranz ’23 and Celia Heath ’22, the first email announcement restricting in-person club activity was “devastating” due to the planning they had already done for the fall semester.
Rosenkranz described the first few hours after the email dropped as an incredibly emotional time as the club tried to “brainstorm” how to host their two upcoming events virtually.
Becca Erdenebulgan ’24, president of the Class Coordinating Board of 2024, also felt an overwhelming sense of disappointment and stress when she found out that all the events planned for the Sophomore Orientation would have to be moved online.
The change in policy felt especially disappointing for Erdenebulgan because each time the 2024 CCB has tried to put on an event in recent semesters “they would run into COVID complications.”
Erdenebulgan also added that it was extremely hard to come up with ideas for online alternatives to the Sophomore Orientation events, which were originally intended to make up for the class of 2024’s strictly online first-year orientation.
Eight hours after the email was sent out, Erdenebulgan had canceled the ice cream vendor for the ice cream social and was going to cancel the vendor for the class talent show.
“We were just seeing effort and money go down the drain,” Erdenebulgan said. “That was just a lot of stress on me and the other board members. … I lost sleep over it and (went) through an incredible amount of stress over it.”
Henry Block ’22.5, a member of the improv troupe IMPROVidence and editor-in-chief of the Brown Noser, said that the email sparked confusion for both groups.
Upon receiving the email, Block speculated that the comedy show IMPROVidence had planned with other student groups could not happen, but he said he had no idea if the Noser could carry out the monthly distribution of their paper.
The University was “not clear on what they were doing,” Block said, adding that for him the email from SAO and the later clarifying email sent two conflicting messages.
Erdenebulgan echoed Block, saying that the new University policies did not feel like they were driven “by science and their claims of keeping the student body” healthy.
Although Erdenebulgan agrees that University-sponsored events tend to be safer, she felt that it was unfair to initially put such a small cap on student activities while allowing large sporting events to continue to take palce.
“You can’t say you care about COVID policies if you let sporting events of 1,000 students that are super-spreaders happen and then not let small club meetings happen,” Erdenebulgan said. “It’s just not scientifically clear.”
Carey noted in an interview with The Herald that, while sudden procedural changes might be confusing for the campus community, the University still works to make its guidelines as comprehensive and clear as possible. According to Carey, it is “the nature of the virus” that necessitated adjustments to safety procedures, though he acknowledged that these changes can be challenging at times for administrators and other community members.
Carey pointed to the Sept. 14 clarifying campus-wide email as an example of the University’s commitment to ensuring that community members understand guidelines and expectations on campus and to responding “quickly when there’s a lack of clarity.”
“I think our general sense is that that helped,” he said. “We got far fewer questions after that communication … so I think that has made things clear.”
“We’re certainly aware of the fact that information needs to be as concise and clear as possible and coordinated and consistent,” Carey added. “We’re certainly continuing to strive to try and do that.”
But for Erdenebulgan, the recent change of policies has made her hesitant in planning future events.
“Every time we plan an event, we have to think about all the possibilities and how it can be moved to virtual and how it can be canceled,” Erdenebulgan said. “It is a possibility, and it does restrict the type of events that we can put on.”
Rozenkranz added that change in policies is a strain on student groups and student group leaders, but she noted the importance of priotizing health and safety. She added that she believes the most important thing she can do as a student is to be flexible.
“Fashion is about thinking outside of the box. It’s about using your creativity and so having event plan A and then plan B — it’s expanding our plans and creativity,” Rosenkranz said.
Still, for many students, the recurring experience of sudden change has been disorienting — and disorientation has been a defining part of their experience at Brown.
“Because the changes are so sudden and so dramatic, I think, in a way to protect your own mental health, I’ve had to just accept that this is what we’re doing,” Charlie Medeiros ’24 said.
Medeiros said that he thinks that students’ initial emotional reactions to University policy changes are valid. “It’s healthy and natural, and it can be productive to get really frustrated about it,” Medeiros added, but it can be taxing for students to maintain their frustration with administrative changes.
Still, he said, “I understand that there is a use for this cathartic group acknowledgment of how uncomfortable it all is because it is tough.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, the printed version of this article included a quote that was omitted from the online version due to an inaccuracy included in the quote. The Herald regrets the error.