Calling for Unity amidst COVID Outbreak
A Look at the Recent Actions of PC Students, the College, and the State of RI
by Andrea Traietti ’21
For two weeks now, many of us in the Providence College community have been holding our breath, waiting for the next email update and anxiously checking the COVID-19 data dashboard every night.
Many are angry about the recent actions of some irresponsible students and the reactions of both the College and the State of Rhode Island. But the one feeling that has pervaded this entire period of time for all of us is uncertainty, as we wait now for an update regarding the College’s plan for the rest of the semester and wonder whether we will be able to avoid another outbreak should the College resume in-person classes.
Within the past week, public commentary by media outlets, the State of Rhode Island, and even some students has only served to heighten the anxiety, fear, and anger already felt by so many. At this time, it is critical that we work to appropriately cope with and channel our emotions, not so that we ignore them or their effect on our mental health, but so that they do not detract from our unity as a campus and from our mission as a collective community.
I write as a Providence College senior, living off-campus, and as merely one member of this community. I have no pretensions to any kind of expertise on the spread of COVID-19, the experience of being a college administrator, or the challenges of trying to protect my constituents as an elected official. Thus, I lend my voice not to criticize, but rather to put forth a call to action for all of us in this community—at PC first and foremost, but also in the city of Providence—to make improvements and work together cooperatively and with positivity to address this outbreak and the larger problems it has revealed.
Unquestionably, the PC students who broke COVID-19 protocols are to blame for this outbreak. Their failure to comply with the rules demonstrated selfishness and disregard for both the efforts of faculty and administration to open campus this fall and the safety of the community at large.
Perhaps the best way those students can take responsibility and make up for the pain they have caused is by changing their behavior.
It is no secret that PC students for years now have acted in ways that are too often unneighborly and disrespectful towards our Elmhurst neighbors. The class of 2021, especially, must work to restore that relationship. In our current circumstances, abiding by COVID-19 protocols is where we must start. Following protocols sends a message not just to the local Providence community that we care about their wellbeing, but also to College administrators that their efforts to reopen this fall were not in vain.
We owe it to these people especially to do better, but in general, we owe it to each individual member in this community: student, faculty, neighbor, or otherwise. It is not just our senior year or our semester on the line—it is people’s lives.
Students’ attitudes and actions therefore must change. Each of us needs to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and view it as the serious health crisis that it is. We need to recognize our presence in this community as students who, for the most part, are only here temporarily during our time at the College. We must recognize that it is a privilege in and of itself to be living and going to school here, and that many of us have safe, comfortable places to return to should we get sick or have to quarantine. Many people do not have that same privilege and would face serious hardship if they were to be sent home. We must be aware that our surrounding neighborhood is a predominantly low-income, majority Black and Latinx community that would pay a much higher price in an outbreak than we would.
This attitude adjustment must be accompanied by a change in action. We must obey the directives of the College and State when they tell us to stay home. We must wear masks and comply with all testing requirements. There must be a complete stop to all social gatherings during the stay-at-home order. Should the order end soon, there can be no gatherings of more than 15 people—“darties” where massive groups of students congregate outside are absolutely out of the question. Lastly, we must limit our social networks: it is not enough to keep our groups to under 15 people. We need to do our best to stick to the same 15 people or less—a “pod,” so to speak—so that we limit our close contacts. According to both the College and the governor, this failure to limit our social circles to the same group of people was a major cause of the outbreak in the first place.
To put it simply, we must recognize our privilege, adjust our attitudes, and change our actions. It is not too late to do the right thing.
While student compliance is the main improvement to be made, as we move forward, we should also consider any improvements the College could make.
The College has shown diligence in its response to this outbreak in its thorough testing program, in its compliance with State officials and directives, and in its acknowledgement of and apology for the way that the actions of some PC students have affected the State.
In his email to students on Friday, Sept. 25, Father Kenneth Sicard, O.P., said, “We have reminded students and their parents of the College’s zero-tolerance policy again, and that failure to comply with all mandates issued by the College and public health authorities may ultimately result in permanent separation from the College.”
Continued reminders of this policy are important, but will be more effective if they are followed by disciplinary action that is strict, swift, and equally applied. The College must hold those responsible for the outbreak accountable, as it has always maintained that disciplinary action will indeed take place for students who break the rules.
Given privacy laws, details regarding any specific incidents or students cannot be released to the general public; therefore, the community should not expect the College to publicly release information on all of its disciplinary investigations or proceedings.
Nonetheless, students have expressed concerns about the effectiveness of the College’s enforcement of the COVID-19 policies added to the student handbook this past summer. The fact that students are concerned merits attention, and suggests that perhaps at least in its transparency and communication about disciplinary measures, the College can improve.
Even if the College shared more generalized information about the measures it has taken recently to investigate incidents and discipline those found in violation of COVID-19 protocol, the community might feel more reassured.
The College should continue the transparency it exhibited at the beginning of the year with the announcement that 17 students had been suspended. This kind of communication, even of a non-specific, generalized nature that still protects privacy, not only reassures students that safety precautions are being taken seriously, but it also sends a warning message, which unfortunately feels necessary at this time, that their actions will have serious consequences.
The College could also improve the way it communicates and emphasizes the specifics of certain guidelines. Of course, students should have been aware by now that they need to limit their social networks; however, the College can do more to explain to students that limiting the size of social gatherings does not mean simply keeping any gathering to under 15 people. It means keeping social networks to the same, consistent group of 15 or fewer as best as possible. Since this was cited by both the College and the Governor as a main reason the outbreak spread so fast, the College should encourage students to form “pods” with their same groups of friends, and administration needs to communicate this guideline with much more frequency and force.
THE STATE OF RHODE ISLAND
Last Wednesday, Governor Gina Raimondo held a press conference in which she provided information on the outbreak at PC and explained that because of the spike in cases at the College, Rhode Island had been placed on no-travel lists for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
Frustration at the College is justified. Calls to hold the PC students who broke the rules accountable are justified, necessary, and productive.
However, any suggestion, even any indirect implication, that the College should have instituted different policies regarding COVID-19 from any state official is not fair. This summer, the College worked with the State to put together a comprehensive, State-approved reopening plan—that the governor herself signed off on. Criticism of the College’s plan after an outbreak is unfair, and simply put, it is too little, too late.
The fact of the matter is that some PC students made selfish choices that hurt everyone. However, PC was transparent in the apology it issued last week, and it took responsibility for the deplorable actions of some of its students. It is cooperating fully with the State, working diligently to get the outbreak under control, and case numbers are decreasing.
Holding those students and the College accountable for that mistake was completely necessary, but continued blame after responsibility has been accepted and action taken is counterproductive—especially during a crisis that requires unity and cooperation on individual, local, state, and national levels to solve.
Teamwork and commitment to the common good should mark the relationship between the State and the College, in public and private communications. Anything otherwise only exacerbates an already painful situation.
Our ability to contain the outbreak first and foremost, but also to tackle some of the deeper issues it has revealed—issues concerning privilege, race, and PC’s relationships and interactions with the local community and the State of Rhode Island—is dependent on our ability to move forward together: students, College, and State, in cooperation and unity with one another.
We often cite Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “Beloved Community” as our vision for our campus community. That spirit of justice and commitment to care for one another as equals must guide our efforts as we strive to contain the outbreak and begin addressing the issues it has brought to light.
While there are improvements to be made across the board, we students by and large, as we have since the beginning, hold the future in our hands. If there were ever a time to exemplify that spirit of “Beloved Community,” or ever a group who could best make changes to really live by its teachings, it is all of us students, and the time is now.