Staff Editorial: Nebraska Hall cluster is met with inadequate urgency by AU
Administration needs to actively ensure that students feel safe
American University made the decision to house students on-campus, despite the threat of spreading the coronavirus. The University is now housing students for the Mid-Semester Residential Experience, often referred to as the “mini-mester,” in addition to emergency housing already offered to students who need it. The Nebraska Hall COVID-19 cluster, however, reminds us that the threat of the virus is present and requires constant evaluation by the University.
Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence Fanta Aw did not dispute claims that enforcement of COVID-19 protocol has been relaxed. Punishment is not a concern here. The administration failed to outline sufficient steps being taken to limit COVID-19 spread among on-campus students. This lack of action is concerning.
The pandemic is an unprecedented and perplexing situation for everyone. The uncertainty is partially what forced all in-person connections to move online last spring. Still, the University, months after similar institutions resumed some form of in-person instruction, chose to invite students on campus. It should not have done so if the administration did not have clear and sufficient mitigation efforts in the event that COVID-19 clusters or outbreaks occurred.
What constitutes a cluster? How many cases define an outbreak? At what point does the situation become so overwhelming that campus has to close? The University should have outlined these guidelines for students, staff and the community that surrounds AU’s campus. Without guidelines, the AU community does not have the language or the knowledge to talk about this situation with full clarity. If the University made a determination that they would be able to keep a certain number of students safe with some on-campus experience this semester, they should have also determined what number means the situation is unsafe. Students need to have confidence that the administration is exhausting every possibility to keep people safe.
Students came to campus to socialize and find community after an isolating semester. The risk students might take to meet friends is a risk AU should have been prepared for. The University should offer events to fulfill these socialization needs and prevent gathering in dorms. Offering outdoor, distanced programming aimed at introducing students to one another and safely forming friendships may prevent breaking of COVID-19 guidelines indoors. This, along with increased monitoring in dorms, could stop the formation of new clusters.
The main changes AU must make, however, are on a much larger scale. Currently, the University is not involving itself as much as it should. The administration should frequently ask students if they feel safe, and what the University can do to help them feel safer. Assuming that growing cases were inevitable is unacceptable. The students currently on campus and the students coming back in the fall need to see comprehensive communication from the University that outlines how it’s going to prevent unsafe situations from arising. Students, staff and those that live around AU deserve rigorous monitoring of the situation and planning for their safety.