COVID-19 emerges in fraternity and sorority life as some chapters party and recruit freshmen

Wednesday, October 14, 2020 - 8:53pm

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Design by Man Lam Cheng

Editor’s Note: The Michigan Daily has used several anonymous sources to report this story. As stated in the article, we are honoring our sources’ requests to be quoted anonymously due to fears of retaliation from their sorority houses or the greater fraternity and sorority life community, which is commonly referred to as Greek life. In accordance with our ethics policy, which can be found in full in our bylaws, the reporters of this article and two editors have seen the names and sorority affiliations of our sources, as well as the evidence they provided to The Daily.

The Michigan Daily has uncovered a previously unreported cluster of COVID-19 cases connected to fraternity and sorority life on campus after a party between members in two houses. The Daily has also obtained documentation that multiple fraternities in the Interfraternity Council conducted fall recruitment of freshmen — a violation of the IFC’s moratorium on fall rush for first-year students.

The Chi Omega sorority had a cluster of COVID-19 cases and went on lockdown after members of the sorority attended a joint party with Delta Chi, a disaffiliated University fraternity, according to four Panhellenic Association sorority members. The Daily has obtained an email from University Health Service to Chi Omega residents about this cluster. The cluster is not publicly identified on the University dashboard

The four students quoted in this article — all members of sororities in the Panhellenic Association familiar with the party and the outbreak in Chi Omega — spoke to The Daily on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from their chapter. This article will refer to each student by a pseudonym. 

Grace, who is currently living in a sorority house on campus, told The Daily that she has seen very few changes in fraternity and sorority life in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’d say like 80 percent of Greek life is living life as normal,” Grace said. “I think that people got here, realized what was possible and threw caution to the wind.”

Grace said it is hard to know how widespread COVID-19 is in fraternities and sororities because chapters are not forthcoming with their testing results.

“I think everyone knows more than they want to admit,” she said.

A party and an outbreak

Members of the Delta Chi fraternity hosted a party Sept. 19 with dozens of members of the Chi Omega sorority in attendance, four students with knowledge of the event told The Daily. These four students include one student in Chi Omega who told The Daily that she chose not to attend the party and three Panhellenic members who have knowledge of the event but wished to keep their chapter affiliation anonymous. 

UHS sent a letter addressed to residents of Chi Omega confirming that a cluster had been identified in the house Sept. 24. The letter, obtained by The Daily, instructed residents to take part in voluntary testing. 

“As you may be aware, a cluster of COVID-19 cases has been identified within your sorority,” the UHS email read. “On the advice of the Washtenaw County Health Department, and out of an abundance of caution, you are asked to test for COVID-19 within the next 48 hours.”

University Health Service sent an email to Chi Omega residents Sept. 24 informing them of a cluster of COVID-19 in their sorority.

University Health Service sent an email to Chi Omega residents Sept. 24 informing them of a cluster of COVID-19 in their sorority. Buy this photo
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The Daily asked the University’s Office of Public Affairs if Chi Omega experienced a cluster in mid-September. The Daily also asked for the total number of clusters and cases connected to University FSL. University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen did not answer these questions in an email to The Daily Wednesday morning.

When asked the same questions, Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, communications and health promotion administrator of Washtenaw County Health Department, wrote in an email to The Daily Wednesday morning that she did not know the answers. She said the county health department does not collect specific data on FSL.

“At the time of this cluster, there were several off-campus residences with cases/clusters,”  Ringler-Cerniglia wrote. 

Approximately 15 members of the Chi Omega sorority tested positive for COVID-19 in the days that followed the party with Delta Chi, multiple Panhellenic Association members told The Daily. Most of the members who tested positive had attended the Delta Chi fraternity party, they said. 

The University publishes notification letters of confirmed cases in residence halls and campus buildings online. Cases in FSL are not individually noted in publicly available data on the University’s dashboard, though they are included in the total case count. This means the total number of cases specifically in FSL is unknown to the public.

Other universities, such as the University of Washington and University of Southern California, publicly announce clusters within FSL. Ohio State University President Kristina M. Johnson told The Lantern, the campus newspaper, the number of fraternity and sorority houses under mandatory quarantine, but an OSU spokesperson would not confirm the names of organizations to protect members’ privacy.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill publicly alerted students to all clusters, including naming specific FSL houses. UNC Chapel Hill moved to all-remote instruction after a series of clusters emerged, including some in its FSL houses. Colleges around the country continue to grapple with outbreaks in FSL. 

In her Wednesday email to The Daily, Broekhuizen wrote that the University does not publicly post notifications for clusters in off-campus housing such as fraternity and sorority houses “for a variety of reasons; one of which is for the respect of student privacy.” She noted that the University does not own or operate fraternity and sorority housing.

The University of Washington, the University of Southern California and UNC Chapel Hill do not own their campus’s fraternity and sorority houses. Ohio State University manages some fraternity and sorority houses but not others. 

While the University does not publicly identify cases in FSL, Ringler-Cerniglia said anyone involved in a cluster is contacted directly. 

“Separating out case numbers by location or house may be identifying in some instances, and we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as useful given the current process,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “Whether a total number of FSL cases can be provided is really a question for the university.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 880 positive cases of COVID-19 have been traced back to the University since the start of the semester, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard. According to Washtenaw County data, 18- to 22-year-olds account for 80 percent of confirmed cases in the county from Sept. 24 to Oct. 7. 

Grace said there is a tendency among members to treat cases in FSL as an internal problem, rather than something that can impact the surrounding community.

“It’s not like we’re living in this little bubble off South U,” Grace said. “Greek life kids go into local establishments and they’re interacting with people outside of their own little bubbles every day. That’s when it gets really scary, when they break their bubble and it just starts to spread.”

According to a Sept. 24 notice posted to the University dashboard, “off-campus, congregate housing” accounted for a rise in cases in September. Between Aug. 21 and Oct. 9, on-campus residence halls have reported more than 200 cases and have dealt with at least nine clusters

Grace said she knew living in a house with dozens of other girls meant she had an increased chance of contracting the virus. However, she was not prepared for the risks she faced as her housemates and others in FSL continued to party.

“I just didn’t think that when we got here the level of socialization would be as intense as it was. From day one, girls were automatically diving into frat basements,” Grace said.

The IFC and the Panhellenic Association, the governing bodies of some of the University’s fraternities and sororities, decided to suspend all social events for the fall semester in a statement from the two groups at the end of July. 

“We cannot ignore the broader implications and responsibilities of being a member of Fraternity & Sorority Life during this unprecedented time,” the IFC and Panhellenic Association statement reads. “We must also be mindful of how the virus has disproportionately affected communities of color, and do our part to work against this inequity.”

Not wanting to be subject to University policies, the University’s chapter of Delta Chi left the IFC voluntarily in the fall of 2018. Delta Chi and five other fraternities formed its own governing body called the Ann Arbor Interfraternity Council

The Panhellenic Association prohibits sororities from attending social events with fraternities that are “expelled from or temporarily suspended from” the IFC.

The Delta Chi headquarters placed a “Cease of Operations” on the University’s chapter in October 2019, according to the IFC’s website. It is unclear why the chapter was reprimanded. 

Broekhuizen wrote Wednesday afternoon that the University’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life is aware that some chapters have “disregarded and violated public health and safety guidelines.” She said two IFC chapters are on probation, one has lost University recognition and “several” others have received educational sanctions.

“Safety is a community responsibility and students ARE holding one another accountable by using the mechanisms the university has in place to report concerns and share evidence, and to submit formal complaints,” Broekhuizen said. “... Many fraternities and sororities have had no challenges honoring the public health guidelines and expectations.”

The IFC, the Panhellenic Association and the University’s chapters of Delta Chi and Chi Omega did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Daily talked to more than a dozen people in the course of reporting this article and found no evidence that any fraternity and sorority organizations in the Multicultural Greek Council or the National Panhellenic Council, the governing body for the University’s Black fraternities and sororities, engaged in fall recruitment of freshmen students or have outbreaks of COVID-19. 

Fraternities recruit freshmen against ‘U’ policy again

A freshman recruit in Delta Chi had tested positive for COVID-19 before the Sept. 19 party, Emma and Grace told The Daily. Because Delta Chi is disaffiliated from the University and is not subject to University policies, the fraternity can recruit freshmen members this semester. 

For fraternities and sororities affiliated with the University, IFC regulations prohibit them from taking in new freshmen members until the winter semester. Last fall, The Daily reported that at least eight IFC fraternities violated this policy by recruiting freshmen members the first semester that the policy went into effect.

Again this fall, The Daily confirmed that at least five University-affiliated fraternities conducted freshmen rush. The Daily reached out to two freshmen who confirmed that they participated in fraternity fall recruitment, but both declined to comment further.

When asked how the University is enforcing its policy, Broekhuizen wrote that “a number of chapters are recruiting eligible students to learn more about their chapters which is in compliance with the university’s policy related to recruitment.” 

Chapters in the IFC and Panhellenic Association are allowed to host in-person recruitment events of eligible students — all students that have completed at least 12 credits at the University — as long as they follow public health guidelines and University COVID-19 policies.

But members of three different University-affiliated fraternities used language explicitly targeting freshmen students in posts to Facebook groups meant for recruitment. The Daily reviewed the posts in some of these groups. 

“Now, as a high school graduate headed for Michigan, I’m sure you’ve all heard of welcome week,” a June 25 post in one fraternity’s fall recruitment group reads. “Frankly, words don’t do it justice. I hope you are ready for fourteen days straight of drinking, f---ing, and to keep it short, doing whatever the f--- you want.”

Some IFC-affiliated fraternities create PowerPoint presentations of their new recruits, called pledges, after recruitment concludes. Several sorority members provided The Daily with PowerPoints from three IFC fraternities sent by fraternity brothers to various Panhellenic sororities. The PowerPoints created for the fall 2020 recruitment cycle featured mostly first-year students.

Grace said she was worried freshmen rush would contribute to the spread of COVID-19, especially because most rush events are in person.

“These pledges are rushing multiple frats, so they’re going everywhere,” Grace said.

Dealing with an outbreak

Broekhuizen wrote that the University works with the county health department, the four fraternity and sorority student governing councils and each chapter’s national headquarters to facilitate COVID-19 communications and planning. These organizations also collaborate to handle positive cases and to address public health violations.  

According to Broekhuizen, chapters were asked to submit their quarantine and isolation plans to the University for review. When cases are identified among off-campus students, Broekhuizen wrote that the University offers “broader asymptomatic testing of individuals living in those locations” and directs these students to quarantine.

Some fraternity and sorority houses have developed plans to deal with potential coronavirus cases, including designating specific bedrooms and bathrooms to be used for quarantine purposes. 

Engineering sophomore Sydney Swider is a member of Alpha Chi Omega. She said she thought her house was doing the best it could to quarantine and isolate given the circumstances of communal living.

“With our shared living spaces, we’re more at risk than people living in houses by themselves or with two other people, but overall I think they’re taking a lot of measures,” Swider said. “If anyone has been in contact with a positive case, they’re quarantining or they have to get out of the house.”

Swider said the girls in Alpha Chi Omega have to report their test results to their self-elected House Corps, made up of two other members of the sorority. According to Swider, the House Corps then reports these results to the University.

The Daily reached out to 13 other fraternity and sorority organizations asking about their COVID-19 protocols, but none responded.

In contrast to Swider’s experience at Alpha Chi Omega, students told The Daily that Chi Omega’s plan was insufficient when a large portion of the house had been exposed to the virus. The Chi Omega house set aside four double bedrooms in case members needed to isolate themselves, multiple Panhellenic Association Members told The Daily.

“That was under the pretense that there would only be a few positive cases in the house at a time,” Grace said. “They did not expect there to be 15 cases all at once.” 

Rebecca echoed the sentiment that when cases actually broke out, the plan in place was not enough. 

“There wasn’t a plan B in case there were more than eight girls who got COVID,” Rebecca said. 

Ringler-Cerniglia wrote that some fraternity and sorority houses were “initially less cooperative than others” in working with the county health department.

“Often the biggest question for us is whether a particular house is fully cooperating (i.e. responding promptly to investigators and following all guidance),” Ringler-Cerniglia wrote.

According to Ringler-Cerniglia, the county health officer has the authority to issue quarantine orders to specific houses, which happened with 25 fraternity and sorority houses at Michigan State University in Ingham County. She said Washtenaw County has not issued any quarantine orders related to the University.

The entire Chi Omega house eventually went into a “lockdown” for 14 days, according to Grace, Emma, Rebecca and Emily, a Chi Omega member. The girls said they did not know which authority required the lockdown. 

The UHS email to Chi Omega residents instructing them to perform testing came five days after the party. Emma said that the delayed response may have led to greater transmission of the virus. 

“It was a few days, but those few days when you contract COVID are your most contagious days, and I think that’s why it’s spread so quickly,” Emma said.

The University provided self-administered nasal swab testing for up to 1,500 FSL members in the first three weeks of September. Broekhuizen did not offer details on how many fraternity and sorority members chose to participate in this testing program.

Some of Swider’s friends tried these self-administered tests. When they went to turn in these tests at the dropbox, Swider said the drop-off location seemed out-of-service.

“There were over 100 tests in that thing,” Swider said. “That made me really not trust (the University).”

Symptomatic students and close contacts of positive individuals can get tested through UHS. Other students who wish to get a test through the University have to sign up and be chosen for the voluntary surveillance testing program, leading many students to test off-campus for reasons of access and convenience. 

Swider said she signed up to get tested through the University and went to the testing center three times at the beginning of the year, but no tests were available each time she went. 

Swider said many people in her house and in her FSL circles are opting to test off campus because they find on-campus options inadequate

“I’m at urgent care right now, and there’s almost 30 people here,” Swider said during a phone interview. “Most of them are in Greek life that I know from other houses.”

After pressure from the campus community, the University added off-campus tests to its dashboard at the end of September, more than doubling the total number of recorded cases. These cases were previously known to the University. 

When interviewed in September, Ringler-Cerniglia said many of these off-campus cases were also discovered through rapid antigen testing. She told The Daily that these rapid tests are unreliable.

“Let’s say they’re using this to justify going to a gathering. So I go and get my rapid test, and I go to a party,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “We’d be highly concerned that that could be a false negative.”

While detailed COVID-19 statistics for FSL are not readily available to the public, Grace said she would not consider Chi Omega an outlier.

“This is going to get really bad. But the thing is, I don’t know how much will be revealed,” Grace said.

One of the pseudonyms in this article has been changed from Gabby to Emily. None of the four sources' real first names are used in this story, including the original Gabby.

Daily Staff Reporter John Grieve and Daily News Editor Claire Hao can be reached at jgrieve@umich.edu and cmhao@umich.edu


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