The fall return to campus for college students across the country sparked concerns among parents, health professionals and community members of college towns. Unfortunately, this anxiety has proven to be well-founded — many schools have either backtracked on their in-person class plans or resorted to quarantining large groups of students in order to alleviate the spread of the virus.
The University of Michigan has not been immune to this problem — Ann Arbor has seen a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the fall semester, with more than 750 cases stemming from campus since the week of Aug. 30. Additionally, several large off-campus houses, including some fraternities, were mandated to quarantine for two weeks by the University and the Washtenaw County Health Department.
University President Mark Schlissel spent the first few weeks of classes bragging about how well the University was doing in maintaining a hybrid semester structure without a major outbreak in cases. However, as soon as the Washtenaw County Health Department case data was included in the University’s COVID-19 dashboard, the positive case number more than doubled, indicating that the University’s reopening plan was failing.
The University’s mishandling of the fall semester led to a faculty senate vote of no confidence in his administration, which prompted an increase in testing and transparency in data. But no significant changes to the fall reopening plans were made, despite the newly established threshold for a reevaluation of campus activities being met immediately after the thresholds were made public. The vote of no confidence in University administration has only become more sound as we continue venturing through this unprecedented, COVID-ridden fall semester.
Exacerbating the University’s failed attempts at having a public-health informed fall semester is the consensus among far too many Ann Arbor students, especially within Greek life, to flout the pandemic guidelines. Daily Columnist Lizzy Peppercorn recently wrote an excellent piece interviewing three members of Fraternity & Sorority Life, all of whom have been conflicted with the urge to party, which emphasized the toxic culture of the University’s Greek life and its excessively competitive social structure. This culture historically pressures its members to commit foolish acts, thus requiring them to disregard pandemic guidelines in order to maintain their social status.
Because of this immense pressure coming from the organizations they devote themselves to, FSL members might not be concerned about what impact their actions can have at a community level. In truth, the risk of causing another campus shutdown might not even cross their mind. What’s most important is their fear of missing out on gatherings that could, at the very least, be reduced in size and mandate masks.
At this point, those who won’t gather in safer ways are too blinded by social pressure to fathom that their actions impact a much wider community. If these young, healthy and insistently indestructible students refuse to grasp the guaranteed impacts a superspreader event would have on the city, the University must do something about it. But given that the administration has proven its incompetency in managing COVID-19 simply by expecting so many students to return to campus without partying, they will likely continue to do nothing.
Perhaps these superspreader events are the thing that will finally get the problematic, racist and sexist chapters of FSL removed from campus. In the meantime, if these young, healthy students are going to continue to party, they should at least contribute to the search for a vaccine.
For most students, the risk of COVID-19 for ourselves and the Ann Arbor community is far worse than any risk that we would take participating in the vaccine trials. The vaccines in the trials that we would participate in are already approved by the Food and Drug Administration to be safe enough for this level of testing. Especially if those who are partying are risking exposure to the extent that they are, they would significantly aid in proving the effectiveness of whatever vaccine they volunteer to test. Not only would they help by speeding up the process of obtaining a vaccine, but they could earn back some respect from the communities they put at risk.
Elayna Swift can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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