Notre Dame Unmasked: Exploring Division and Disarray in the Wake of Reopening

Notre Dame Unmasked: Exploring Division and Disarray in the Wake of ReopeningAugust 10, 2020; Students wear masks in class in DeBartolo on the morning of the first day of fall semester 2020. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

The first week of August saw a Notre Dame Welcome Week unlike any before it. First year students moved into residence halls where their new neighbors wore masks in the common spaces and on their way to the shower. They ordered meals in dining halls with no tables. They worshipped six feet apart at first year mass. DomerFest — that awkward, sweaty, electric rite of passage — was nowhere to be seen.

For most students, this semester marked the end of five months in lockdown and the first opportunity to see their friends since spring break. The university had poured money and hope into a campaign around the word "HERE," designed to encourage health and safety protocols. 

Despite concerns about safety guidelines and testing, many community members had faith that Notre Dame could return to campus safely. Other community members, however, came here this fall full of worry. They wondered why Notre Dame would not make traveling students quarantine, why there was no comprehensive surveillance testing and why administrators would not give a clear answer about plans for containing a large outbreak of COVID-19 on campus.

Two weeks into class, when a surge in coronavirus cases sent students into lockdown and all classes were moved online, those fears were borne out. The university community was thrust into a period of uncertainty, and left wondering whether the next announcement would tell them to pack their bags up and return home.

After a ten-day limbo — during which off-campus undergraduates were barred from campus and on-campus students stayed mostly in their dorm rooms, save for meals — Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C addressed the university community once more, announcing a plan to gradually phase back into life before the lockdown.

Though this news indicates room for slight relaxation, the situation is still precarious. Notre Dame students, faculty and administrators must face the question: Amidst a pandemic, is in-person college feasible?

The answer, at least right now, seems to be a tentative yes, however, not without facing serious obstacles. While many people probably envisioned that a return to Notre Dame would entail difficulties surrounding health and safety, the campus community has also had to grapple with another hurdle: division. Though the Fighting Irish pride ourselves on the unity of our community, COVID-19 has positioned students, faculty and administration at odds with one another.

 

Coming Home

Some upper-classmen, like junior Jillie Randle, felt a disconnect between the university they’d grown to know and the campus they returned to in August. 

“I was excited to return but also a little nervous it was going to be such a different experience,” she said. 

With new policies designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — a ban on large gatherings, masks required in public spaces and no guests allowed in dorm rooms — some students struggled to adapt to the new social life. 

But many, like sophomore Claire Sison, thought the opportunity to learn and socialize face-to-face again was worth the new rules.

“I was glad to go back,” she said. “I wanted to see my friends again … I felt like going back to school would allow me to be more productive, social and happy in general.”

Despite all the new changes to campus life, administrators and faculty said there was an undeniable shift of energy once students returned.

“The happiest I have been in probably six months is when we had the welcome activities beginning,” said Erin Hoffmann Harding, vice president for student affairs.

But others in the Notre Dame community, as much as they missed campus, could not set aside their fears about health and safety.

Junior Alex Clay attended an orientation meeting for student leaders before the majority of students moved in. The nature of that meeting, he said, gave him reason to doubt Notre Dame’s decision to re-open.

“There were 200 people in Washington Hall, and people wore masks, but it felt really ironic that we were having a large gathering to talk about how to prevent coronavirus. I mean, that was just mind-boggling to me,” Clay said. “And just from that, I knew that things were not going to go well.”

First years, too, found their expectations for an in-person semester falling short. 

Anjali Pellegrin had been excited to start her first year at Notre Dame. The pandemic had upended her senior year of high school, but she was hopeful that her freshman year of college could still be normal, all things considered.

At first, Pellegrin was optimistic that the university would make it through to Thanksgiving as planned.

“I realized I was a little mistaken on that front,” she recalled.

From her first days on campus, Pellegrin felt some people were taking the situation less seriously than others.

“I came into contact with people who are like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to a party. We don’t care!’” Pellegrin said. “I don’t know, I didn’t expect that nonchalant attitude from people.”

Professors’s Response

The decision to return to campus or not in the fall was pertinent not just for Notre Dame but for institutions of higher education across the nation. 

Jenkins placed himself at the vanguard of that debate, announcing Notre Dame’s plan to reopen on May 18 — before any of the other top 15 American universities had announced plans for the fall. 

By late August, eight of the top 15 universities had committed to a semester of entirely virtual learning. The other six, which opted for some in-person instruction, significantly decreased the density of on-campus residence halls, or told many students not to return to campus at all. But Notre Dame proceeded with its May decision to bring students back to campus for mostly in-person classes.

The decision to reopen, Jenkins wrote in an Op-Ed in The New York Times, hinged on the question: What risks are worth taking?

“We have availed ourselves of the best medical advice and scientific information available and are assiduously planning a reopening that will make the campus community as safe as possible,” Jenkins wrote. “We believe the good of educating students and continuing vital research is very much worth the remaining risk.”

His column drew detractors from both the general public and members of the Notre Dame community, who questioned Jenkins’s judgement.

Eileen Hunt Botting, a Notre Dame professor of political science, wrote a letter to the editor responding to Jenkins’s announcement, warning of the public health risks of reopening.

“What do we lose by working from home for one more semester? Nothing but some money,” she wrote. “What do we gain by waiting to reopen until it’s safe? The moral certainty that we did the right thing for our community.”

Since the university announced its reopening plan, Botting said she worried that university policies were not “minimizing the possibility of community spread.” 

Citing studies which show that college-age people are most likely to engage in risky social behaviors, she said the university put too much faith in the school’s ability to limit social gatherings where the virus is likely to spread. 

Robert Norton, a professor in the department of German and Russian languages and literatures, shared Botting’s concerns. As a former senior administrator in the Office of the Provost, Norton said he was surprised when Notre Dame announced that it would reopen in the fall. 

“I tried to assume that the university was acting in good faith,” he said, explaining that if the administration had initially decided not to reopen, opening at a later date would not be an option.

“However, if you make the decision to open the campus, and bring everyone to campus, closing it at some later date still is an option,” he said.  

But as the fall reopening date approached and Jenkins’s decision remained firm, Norton worried the university wasn’t prepared. 

“I was hoping that the leadership of the university would have the courage and the wisdom to follow the facts as they were developing and at the appropriate time say, ‘Look we tried our best, we were optimistic,’” he said.

Robert Battalio, chair of Notre Dame’s department of finance, however, said he believed reopening was “exactly the right thing to do.”

 

“It is great having students on campus,” he said, “That is why we professors get into this business.”

A Campus Divided

From the very beginning of the semester, there was a split among members of the community: those in favor of reopening and those opposed. And though students could be found on either side of the debate, a second intra-student body conflict emerged between those who lived on campus and those who lived off campus. 

The Office of Residential Life gave sophomores and juniors the option to move off campus, away from the potential hubs of infection. 

But off campus, the virus quickly took hold. Unsupervised by residence assistance or rectors, off-campus students had the freedom to host large gatherings, against official university guidelines. While on-campus students were banned from inviting even a single guest into their rooms, some groups of off-campus students threw parties with dozens of people.

Quickly, numbers on Notre Dame’s COVID-19 dashboard, which contains regularly updated figures on the number of cases on campus, ticked up, as individuals infected at those parties spread the virus to their friends at smaller gatherings. 

By Sunday, Aug. 16, the electronic chart, which was posted during the first week of classes, showed that 70 students had tested positive.

And though reports of large off-campus parties came out as cases soared, there were problems on campus, too. Videos surfaced of a crowded gathering in the campus dining tents late at night; most were not wearing masks, and none were six feet apart. During the evening, the quads were packed with students eating dinner in tight clusters. 

Tensions quickly ran high and some on-campus students began to shift blame for the case surge to off-campus students.

Junior Quinn Hogan said she thought that “the responsibility falls more heavily upon the off-campus students to make smart and safe decisions without the supervision of campus police and COVID staff.”

But, she added, despite “the fact that the off-campus community was to blame for the initial outbreak, I don’t think that they deserve any more student accountability than their on-campus peers.”

Many quickly grew frustrated with the behavior of their peers, and took to social media to share their concerns, even in the comments of a public profile’s posts.

 

@coronavirusnd, an Instagram account with over 7,000 followers, frequently posts memes that provide commentary and comedic relief about the current situation.

 

One Aug. 19 post, which implied that off-campus students were to blame for the outbreak and might “get everyone sent home,” sparked discourse in the comments section. 

 

“Funny how everyone is pointing the finger at people who live off campus, when without on-campus students showing up to parties there would be no issue,” user @ganixcc wrote. “Attempting to shift all the blame onto a few prominent people is classic scapegoat mechanism.”

Randle, the upperclassman who already was feeling disconnected, saw other posts tagged #IHateItHERE. The message didn’t sit right with her.

 

“That’s just the ultimate betrayal to me,” Randle said. In a hopeful post on Instagram, Randle called on her peers to set aside the negativity and work together to contain the outbreak. The image she posted said “We love it HERE” and currently has over 1,700 likes. 

 

“I’m not defending errors in [Notre Dame’s] process,” she explained, “but it hurts my heart to see people turn so quickly on this amazing university that I know they love.”

 

Junior Kirsten Young created an entire Instagram account, @heresthewhy, to share messages from Notre Dame students explaining why they do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19. Some of the anonymous posts shared stories of perfectly healthy loved ones who died from the virus. Others pointed out that not every student has a stable environment to which they can return if Notre Dame has to shut down again.

 

Young said she didn’t expect the account — which has over 2,100 followers as of Aug. 31 — to gain such traction. She said she’s received dozens of messages from fellow students who share her concerns. Student fear, she said, “ranges from unsafe households to physical needs, emotional needs, family members who have died, friends who have gotten very sick.”

 

“I feel like it’s so much bigger than many people realize.”

 

Testing and Isolation

 

Students living both on and off campus were asked to take an at-home COVID-19 test before being approved to return to campus. Those who tested positive were barred from returning until receiving appropriate medical clearance.

 

Upon arrival, however, students were not tested again. Hoffmann Harding said the decision not to test students again was not a cost or availability issue. 

 

Rather, she said, administrators, in tandem with external groups such as local health officials and the Cleveland Clinic, “felt good about the staged move-in plan and the protocols associated with it for those students on campus.”

 

Hoffmann Harding said she thought, “The pre-matriculation testing and the precautions we've put in place in the classroom,” would “put us in a good position to be successful to launch this semester.” 

 

In the first week of school, a total of 460 tests were administered and there was a 15.7% positive rate. Despite the relatively small number of tests administered, the numbers on the dashboard kept rising.

Many students became aware of the gravity of the situation and started keeping tabs on it. Junior Catherine Connell said checking the dashboard became a daily ritual for her.

 

“It felt like my only form of knowing what would happen,” she said. 

 

In the wake of rising case numbers, the Office of the Provost emailed students about the university’s testing protocols. The announcement clarified that tests would be administered to students based on the judgment of a University Health Services medical provider.

But soon the testing center was pushed to its limits. On Monday, Aug. 17 alone, the university administered 419 tests — more than four times the number of tests administered the previous Monday. Many students, including Connell and Scholastic’s editor Genevieve Redsten, reported difficulties getting through to University Health Services, with whom they were required to consult over the phone prior to being approved to get a test. 

Around the same time, the university announced an expansion in its testing in the form of a more nuanced Daily Health Check system, which issues color-coded passes based upon someone's self-reported health status. Students who indicated exhibiting one of what the university labeled as the “big three” symptoms — a fever of more than 100.4 degrees, shortness of breath or loss of taste or smell — or who believed they had contact with someone who was positive for COVID-19 received red passes.

 

Those students were automatically scheduled for appointments at Notre Dame’s testing center. There, they took rapid antigen tests — with turnaround times of about 20 minutes — and were instructed to wait. 

 

The contrast between a typical fall semester and this one was stark. Outside the football stadium, where fans would normally line up to watch home games, lines of students snaked around the corner waiting for tests. Instead of guiding fans, ushers were left to guard piles of luggage filled with students’ books and clothes for isolation.

 

Students whose tests came back positive were quickly driven to an isolation facility. Those who tested negative were given a more accurate, molecular diagnostic test which uses a polymerase chain reaction to detect the virus. They were required to isolate until those results came back, about 48 hours later.

 

Those with secondary symptoms received a yellow pass and underwent the same process as those who received red passes, except they were required to schedule their testing through University Health Services. 

 

Hoffmann Harding noted that the university adjusted its system and assigned more people to field calls for UHS in an attempt to make sure students could access tests faster. 

 

“We had a volume that really surpassed any volume that we had experienced in University Health Services,” Hoffmann Harding said. “So we actually added staff over at UHS to make sure that we could be more responsive to students.” 

 

The testing experience varied by student and scenario.

 

Randle, who reported all big three symptoms in her Daily Health Check on Aug. 17, described the process as ideal: “Personally, I had the smoothest experience I could’ve imagined.”

 

She did note, however, that she might have benefitted from fortunate timing, as she went early in the morning and beat out the big surge.

 

Holly Larson, a sophomore transfer student, also said her testing experience went smoothly. “I’ve heard other people have to wait a long time for tests but that wasn’t my situation,” she said, “The university’s treated me very well.”

 

Connell, however, was not as fortunate. She and her friend had red passes and had both been in close contact with an individual who was a confirmed positive, but were not scheduled for tests. She said that they had heard stories of other people with red passes not being tested, so they resolved to go to the test site themselves.

 

“It was definitely like we had to force their hand,” she said. Connell described that she and her friend arrived at the testing center around 10 a.m. and made their case to many different people before they were finally put in a queue to get tested about an hour later. 

 

 “I think, had we not been as pushy, we probably wouldn’t have gotten tested that morning,” she said. 

 

Hoffmann Harding said she wishes she “had a crystal ball” and that “if I could have had enough folks to answer the phone in that first week, please know that I would have.”

 

Connell, who was put in isolation with the friend she got initially tested with, had to do another round of tests because her PCR test came back negative while her friend’s came back positive.

 

She recalled that a few days later when she went for a second time, “their testing was so much more organized.”

 

“It seemed like night and day from that first time that we went there,” she said.

 

After being tested, students were isolated, either in hotels or apartment complexes. Some students have been isolated individually whereas others have roommates.

 

Randle, who was in isolation with roommates in an apartment complex, said that each individual has their own bedroom and bathroom and was instructed to spend as little time as possible in common spaces.

 

“Honestly it’s been great to have roommates because we can share laughs, talk a little bit while going through the same misery,” she said.

 

Larson, on the other hand, enjoyed being isolated alone: “At first I was thinking ‘I wish they put me with someone,’ but now I’m really enjoying the privacy,” she said. “I don’t feel that lonely; all my friends have been reaching out to me, asking if I’m okay.”

 

Junior Tara Senn said being in isolation actually helped her to better focus on school: “Being here without roommates or family means it’s actually easier to concentrate because there aren’t people constantly in the background.”

 

Senn tested positive while in isolation after she had been moved there because she realized she was in contact with someone in Pasquerilla East who was a suspected case. 

 

All three students described the university as being attentive to them while they were in isolation. Each one recounted her day as including phone calls from contact tracers and ND Cares doctors.

 

“People call me everyday checking in on me,” Larson said. “They’re not too busy for us — they’re making sure we’re okay.”

 

Randle said her doctor also checked that they were getting food and water. “The first day we didn’t get a whole lot and then we started getting tons,” she said.

 

The university delivers breakfast and lunch to students at 9 a.m. and dinner at 6 p.m. and also provides them information on how to place orders for delivery through services like GrubHub and InstaCart.

 

“I’m coming out on the other end and I feel totally taken care of,” Randle said. 

 

Randle and Larson also emphasized the fact that the university was taking mental health as seriously as physical health in isolation.

 

“They gave me a packet about keeping up with mental health in quarantine, which gave a lot of tips that I’ve actually taken advantage of,” Larson said. 

 

After 10 days, if they no longer have new symptoms, students are released from isolation.

 

Though physically removed from the rest of campus during that time, students in isolation were not necessarily insulated from the scrutiny of their peers.

 

According to Senn, sometimes people make her feel guilty for having COVID-19. “I don’t think my guilt is totally spurred by other people but I was already feeling bad about it and then talking to others, I’ve been inclined to feel worse.”

 

Some people assume that testing positive means you were acting irresponsibly, according to Larson: “A lot of people have said to me: ‘What party were you at? Was it worth it?’” she said. “And I’m like, I don’t know what to tell you; I didn’t go to a party.”

 

From Suspension to Rephasing

 

By Aug. 18 the total number of cases — 259 — had increased by 244 cases from the previous Tuesday’s total, and Jenkins addressed the student body in a five-minute livestream during which he announced that in-person classes would be suspended for the next two weeks. 

 

Many students were disappointed by the announcement, but understood the reasoning behind it, including Randle.“Things were getting out of hand and it was a wake up call that we can’t progress like this,” she said.

 

Clay said he was worried that the administration wasn’t taking enough responsibility.“They were the ones who decided to bring everyone back,” he said. “If the safety and the health of the students here were the university’s number one priority, we would not have come back.”

Professors, too, expressed sadness at the switch back to online learning, but were also  “ready to go online on a moment’s notice,” according to Battalio. 

 

Norton saw it as a death knell for an in-person semester: “I expect that you're going to hear either today or tomorrow — at the latest by Monday — that everyone's going home,” he told Scholastic on Aug. 20.

 

Eight days later, however, Norton was proven wrong as Jenkins took to livestream to announce that the university would return to in-person classes the following week. “The virus dealt us a blow and we stumbled,” Jenkins said, “but we steadied ourselves, and now, we move on.”

 

Sophomore Olivia Althoff was “very pleased” with the decision. “I’m excited to get out of my bed again for class.”

 

Other students, like Clay, were apprehensive that “there was no mention in the plan about realistic options that students who would feel uncomfortable about going back to class would have in terms of remote learning.”

 

He added that the administration’s failure to extend students a voluntary option to return home “was irresponsible and a failure by the administration to protect the vulnerable members of its community.”

 

Coming Together

 

The coronavirus hit Notre Dame’s campus hard, in more ways than one. 

 

As of Aug. 31, Notre Dame has administered 6,624 COVID-19 tests and registered 577 positive cases, of which 542 are undergraduate students, 30 are graduate students and five are employees. 

 

While almost all — 546 — of the positive cases were detected through diagnostic tests, surveillance testing, which began the week of Aug. 17, has also helped to identify positive individuals. The university is also hoping to pilot saliva-based surveillance testing, as opposed to nasal-based surveillance testing, by Sept. 2, according to an email from Provost Marie Lynn Miranda.

 

Though the impact of COVID-19 on campus is quantifiable when it comes to case numbers, it is difficult to gauge how deeply the first few weeks of the semester might have affected the spirit of unity among members of the campus community. 

 

“In principle, we’re well equipped to have a narrative that brings us together for the sacrifice of the common good of our neighbor and our fellow students,” said Tim O’Malley, who is a faculty member at the McGrath Institute for Church Life and a professor of theology

 

“In reality,” O’Malley added, “every person on campus, every student, every faculty member, every staff member may not live out the core dimensions of that mission.”

 

Despite the mistakes some students made, O’Malley called on the Notre Dame community to grant their classmates grace. “I just think we must avoid scapegoating,” he said. “Like obviously don’t have a 200-person party, but let’s also not pretend everyone who did that is Attila the Hun.”

 

Others, like the owners of the Instagram account @ndfightingspirit, are hoping to bring the university community together through an old standard: The Alma Mater.

 

The account posted that they “want to offer a call to reunite our community and remember what it means to be the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame” and encouraged students to play the alma mater out their dorm windows, the same evening Jenkins announced the university would give in-person classes a second shot.

 

So on Friday, instead of the thump of heavy bass typical to weekend nights, campus was filled with the sound of the alma mater, a vow that despite any difficulties, “our hearts forever love thee, Notre Dame.”

 

Despite any shortcomings of the university and its community, O’Malley said tenderness was the right path forward.

 

“And obviously the university needed to do better on some things,” O’Malley said, “But I’ve never administered a global pandemic, so I think a little tenderness, presumption of goodwill and healing will need to take place.”