With the decision to bring students back to campus in the middle of a pandemic comes a responsibility to keep us informed about the status of our community. We’ve seen what happens when government does a poor job of reporting data and combines inconsistent messaging with wishful thinking. We expected better from the Carleton administration.
Carleton’s established channels of communication provide only a dribble, not a stream, of information. The dashboard on the website is so delayed that it often captures the state of campus more than a week ago. Weekly emails from Dean Livingston come off as restrained, clearly aimed at projecting an image of control over the situation and letting as little slip as possible. Furthermore, the two sometimes present conflicting messages, as when the most recent campus-wide email said that there were “seven additional positive cases” detected through SHAC rapid tests—additional to the six positives mentioned earlier in the email—that are not posted on the dashboard.
In the absence of clear communication from Carleton leadership, rumors have dominated students’ awareness of the virus’s presence on campus. When rumors take the place of information, the potential for false perceptions of the danger grows. At the end of September, there was a post in the Overheard at Carleton Facebook group, which includes over 5,000 Carleton students and alumni, accusing members of the football and volleyball teams of having a party that violated the Covenant. Students were left to investigate wrongdoing on their own, or to defend themselves against allegations that administration, days later, claimed were false.
Students should not have to take on the responsibility of being COVID-19 vigilantes. Instead, we need transparency from the administration on what events are taking place that could impact the virus’s spread on campus. The only thing they have served us with to this point is a vague sense of fear and mistrust of our peers, an endless blame game, without knowledge of what is really happening, and when, and where.
In addition to a lack of transparency, Carleton has failed to provide students with consistent protocols. We reported in September that the vagueness of the Community Covenant makes many of its policies effectively toothless. In one section, students agree to “strive” to stay six feet away from “any other person” except roommates or housemates—but later in the document, they are simply asked to keep their close circle “as small as possible.” The onus is on students to decide how to interpret that, and RAs are left as the primary enforcers of these policies. The Covenant’s warnings to “avoid travel when possible” and “limit off-campus excursions” similarly lack the clarity needed to be enforceable—as evidenced by recent news of a batch of cases “believed to be contracted through off-campus exposure.”
That news was delivered in an email announcing that Carleton had increased its COVID-19 action level to “Level 3: High” as case rates skyrocket in the surrounding community. Carleton leadership, however, declined to institute major steps prescribed under its own Level 3 action plan, including moving classes and programs online and instructing students to “shelter-in-place” in campus housing. The justification was that Carleton has “not experienced transmission through program and classroom settings.”
But how can the college be so certain of this—certain enough to disregard its own Level 3 guidelines? Indeed, why design these response scenarios at all if the college does not follow them when the time comes? Administrators assure us that classroom transmission is “not likely” since distancing and disinfecting protocols are in place. We can’t help but remember their naive shock when, earlier this term, two cases at LDC and Sayles sent a total of 19 close contacts from the work environment into quarantine. With distancing rules in place, close contacts within Dining Services were not supposed to exist.
But there is a difference between intentions and reality, and that is exactly why the Level 3 guidelines prescribe an abundance of caution. With only a week left of classes and students soon set to disperse to locations worldwide, the very least Carleton could do is move in-person classes online if they do not include hands-on work. Instead, in contradiction with the college’s own Level 3 plan, Wednesday’s email felt like it was practically encouraging faculty to continue their in-person offerings. It is hardly a consolation that end-of-term COVID tests, which must be returned by mail, are not expected to arrive on campus until the last day of classes—leaving students wondering if they will even receive their results before traveling home.
We have no doubt that college administrators are trying their best to deal with this pandemic as safely, equitably, and carefully as possible. We can only imagine how difficult managing this pandemic on campus must be, and it is unfortunate that college administrators now have a job description similar to that of Anthony Fauci. COVID-19 transmission on campus has been quite low until recently and the administration deserves credit for this. But going into Winter Term, we urge the college to be more forthcoming with information and more consistent in its protocols. The more information and guidance that Carls have, the better decisions we can make. Just receiving the headlines leaves much to be desired, especially when there is so much value in the details.
There is increasing evidence that COVID-19, even among young people, can impart long-lasting damage to one’s physical health and cognitive function. As we finish Fall Term on a fearful note, we know now, more than before, that young people are not being spared by this virus. So to the Carleton administration: please tell us what’s really happening—regardless of how it makes the school look.