Confusion over COVID violations continues

By Amelia Leaphart and Claire Smith
Executive Staff

On Saturday, February 27, Greek organizations hosted Shake Day celebrations after one of the largest rush groups in recent history was approved to rush by the administration. The gathering size, however, was limited to 25 students, which required Greek organizations to devise COVID- safe Shake Day plans approved by Campus Activities.

Some leaders of Greek Life voiced concerns about holding a large Shake Day event while still under a 25 person limit. For example, sorority pledge classes are capped at 30, meaning that one group of new members in several organizations could not fit within a 25-person limit.

Assistant Dean of Campus Life Lauren Goodpaster acknowledged that Greek students communicated that, “they didn’t think that Shake Day with groups of 25 was a way to set them up for success,” but continued, “that was the decision related to the public health threat and public health protocol, so that was the parameters from which they had to plan and work.”

Ryan Dix (C’21), IFC vice-president of recruitment, said that during Shake Day planning, he told administrators, “If you tell us the gathering size is going to be 100 on this date, then we will plan Shake Day for that date.” However, IFC/ISC leaders said that administrators could not give them a date of when the gathering limit would be raised.

Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety, while he didn’t know of specific conversations that took place between administration and IFC/ISC, said “I can’t imagine why, if the fraternities came and said “we actually want to delay a week”, or [asked] administration, “When do you think we’re going to have limits of 100?” if that would be in a week or two, why we couldn’t wait.”

The Tuesday following Shake Day, students received an email from Campus Activities announcing that, beginning March 5, the gathering size would be increased to 100 people. An email to the student body introduced the announcement by saying: “You have all done an incredible job holding yourselves and each other accountable and protecting the bubble, and we are very happy with the testing results so far.”

Brigety explained the decision to raise the gathering limit, saying “our plan all along has been to evaluate what the prevalence of the disease [COVID-19] was, and then based on that prevalence, to be able to make a decision to gradually increase gathering limits.”

Two days later, students were notified that the gathering limit would be immediately reduced to 10 students due to COVID violations from 11 Greek organizations on Shake Day. The announcement reported students seen “in large groups without masks, close together, and gathering inside various places on campus.” While administrators wrote that they “hope this gathering restriction will be temporary,” the announcement did not outline when the policy would be reconsidered, but said that, “Future gathering size increased will depend on the decisions that all our students make in addition to ongoing test results.”

The policy was decided by members of the University’s Student Life and Student Success in consultation with members of the Public Health Team. Public Health Officer Mariel Gingrich confirmed that “a representative from the public health team was consulted prior to the decision being made,” to reduce the student gathering limit to 10. The University had reported two student COVID cases from February 15 to 21, and one employee COVID case in the week of February 22 to 28.

Brigety said, “I was not involved in the initial decision. Our team made the call and I backed them on it. And then, once we had a chance to take a look at it, we adjusted, to include adjusting the communication and the tone of the communication.”

Students quickly began contacting student government representatives, and student leaders reached out to administrators within hours of the policy change requesting meetings to voice their concerns and clarify the decision behind the policy. One concern student leaders had was that the 10-person limit penalized all student organizations equally, regardless of COVID violations.

Ivana Porashka (C’21), SGA president, voiced her concern that policy reversals would make it more difficult to get students to comply with COVID guidelines. “We want to comply with guidelines, but when those guidelines are made impractical and arbitrary, it’s really hard to get students to follow them,” Porashka said.

Additionally, student leaders voiced frustration over not being notified of a policy change ahead of announcements to the entire student body. Meredith Yoxall (C’21), ISC president, said, “We have asked in the future if something is going to occur involving Greek Life, we would like to have a heads up, even five minutes.” Yoxall added that administrators gave IFC/ISC leaders notice in subsequent policy updates.

When asked if the administration would have received a different response from students if student leaders had received a notice of a policy change, Brigety said, “If you’re asking do I think that I need to consult the student leaders every time I have to make an emergency decision with regard to the safety of this campus, the answer is no.”

He continued, ”I’m not going to consult the student leaders, I’m not going to consult faculty, I’m not going to consult Domain residents when I have to make an emergency decision, because that is what I get paid to do. And then once the dust settles, we can go back and try to figure out as rapidly as we can how to address the situation.”

Within hours of the 10-person limit policy announcement, a petition to return to a 100-person limit received over 1,000 signatures from students, parents, and alumni. Additionally, two protests were held on the quad on Thursday, in violation of the new 10-person limit. Some students at the protests voiced confusion over the quick reversal of administrative policy and a perceived lack of transparency between administrators and student leaders. Many cited mental health concerns and feelings of isolation on campus for their attendance.

Fisher Calame (C’23) peacefully protests on the quad with sign reading “Mental health is also worth protecting”. Photo by Maria Mattingly.

Fisher Calame (C’23) said, “The students have really been trying so hard. We’ve been following all the policies to the letter. We all want to be here so much. I mean, we love this place, we love this school. This is our whole life and we want nothing more than to be here and comply and keep each other safe. It’s just really disheartening because the school just keeps on passing policies that don’t seem student-friendly and just doesn’t make sense to us.”

Some students, however, were more narrowly focused on the challenges a 10-person limit posed to hosting parties. One protest sign read “No Parties, No Peace,” and was widely criticized for using activist language to advocate for large parties on campus.

After meeting with student leaders on Friday, the University issued another announcement to the student body on Saturday, March 6, to update the gathering policy again. The new policy allowed for 50-person gathering limits, except for 12 Greek organizations that violated COVID policy. This allowed organizations not found in violation of COVID guidelines to continue having events, which addressed a primary concern students voiced.

Administrators argued that lowering the gathering limit or pulling the “emergency break” [sic] was “absolutely necessary because of the possible immediate public health threat.”

Administrators in Student Life explained that they received around 70 reports of Shake Day COVID violations, including social media posts, videos, emails, LiveSafe reports, and official reports sent through Maxient, a software program used by colleges for managing behavior records. Goodpaster said that, as of the Monday following Shake Day, “you could count [the reports] on one hand,” but more reports came in over Wednesday and Thursday.

Dean of Students Nicole Noffsinger-Frazier said that the reports caused concern by “pointing to the possibility of Shake Day being a superspreader event.”

“You have to act very quickly, meaning you don’t have time to fully investigate all the different organizations, you have to hit a quick pause. That Thursday night, there weren’t any gatherings. Any yet it gave us time, Tuesday to Friday and Saturday morning to make that more informed decision,” Goodpaster said. There were several gatherings that broke the new 10-person limit on Thursday, including two public protests on the quad.

Goodpaster said of Shake Day reports: “We never saw any groups larger than 25… but what was concerning was whether it was three or four people close together or 10 or 12 people close together, we saw people unmasked and indoors. At that point that was the concern.”

The University reported one employee COVID case and no student cases in the two weeks following Shake Day, which caused confusion among the student body regarding public-health based policy. Will North (C’21), IFC vice-president of public relations, said, “We’ve been told throughout this whole year, especially this semester, that everything that we do and the gathering limit will be based on the COVID numbers. [This decision] goes against everything they’ve been telling us in terms of the policy. They tell us the policy reflects the numbers, and they do not.”

Administrators have clarified that both public health data and student compliance were part of the decisions regarding Shake Day violations. Brigety explained that “[the decision] basically is our intuitive judgement based on where we’re seeing the empirical data, which is the case counts, and the subjective data based on what we’re seeing and hearing and about broad compliance.”

Goodpaster emphasized accountability, saying, “I think there’s two ways to look at this. There are decisions you’re going to make according to public health, but there’s also decisions about accountability… It’s more about, to me, holding organizations accountable for not following expectations that were clearly defined.”

Presidents from the 12 Greek organizations were notified soon after the March 6 policy update was announced that they had broken COVID policy and would not be allowed to hold in-person events for the month of March. Starting Monday, March 8, individual Greek presidents have met with Goodpaster and Coordinator of Fraternity and Sorority Life Colin Nelson-Pinkston to hear specific violations the University identified from Shake Day.

Brigety voiced his interest in having discussion with Greek Life members regarding accountability on campus: “At a time where Greek Life is under fire all around the country and there are calls to disband Greek Life, we need to understand where those calls are coming from. I do not want Greek life to go away.” He continued, “I think it’s a necessary conversation to ensure that Greek Life can continue to evolve and help their students flourish.”

Yoxall said that IFC/ISC has not been invited to conversations with administrators regarding changes to Greek Life, but said that Brigety asked her to notify individual Greek leaders that he would like to meet with them.

Goodpaster said, “The one thing I will say that I want to make very clear is we’re not here to shut down Greek life, we’re here to hold students accountable and keep them safe and healthy. And work with students to carve out a better path forward. There’s no plans in place, nor do I want there to be plans in place to shut it all down.”

In a meeting with the student body on Wednesday, March 10, Brigety announced that the University’s policy has changed again, with a 50-person limit for events with alcohol and unlimited gathering sizes for substance-free events.

Brigety said, ”We are trying very hard to figure out how we can offer maximum flexibility and maximum freedom that still allows our community to be safe, given what we understand the prevalence of the disease to be.”