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Lessons to learn from Notre Dame’s reopening

August 29, 2020 GMT

The past week has provided a cautionary tale — and confirmed the worst fears of many local residents — about the risks of welcoming college students back to campus in the midst of a pandemic.

The past week has provided a cautionary tale — and confirmed the worst fears of many local residents — about the risks of welcoming college students back to campus in the midst of a pandemic.

The University of Notre Dame’s plan for in-person classes — based on “the best medical advice and scientific information available,” according to university President the Rev. John Jenkins — began to fall apart within a week of the start of the fall semester.

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Last week, as the number of COVID-19 cases spiked, Jenkins announced that for the next two weeks, students will meet online only, off-campus students are not to come on campus, and gatherings are limited to no more than 10 people. The university hopes that these measures will contain the virus so that in-person instruction can resume — and they can avoid sending everyone back home.

To its credit, Notre Dame has been transparent about case numbers, has apologized for its mistakes and has resolved to try to fix them. But the university’s initial response to the spike in cases reveals something less than the “assiduously” planned reopening outlined by Jenkins in a May New York Times op-ed.

That plan seems to have been built on the assumption that students would follow protocols, including social distancing and wearing masks. And that they wouldn’t gather in large groups and have parties. The trouble with such assumptions came early, even before classes began, with off-campus parties.

It’s worth noting that many students are following protocols. But as health officials have emphasized for months, all it takes is a small number of people to spread the highly contagious virus.

Once the virus began spreading on campus, the university was caught unprepared: Some students reported that calls to the COVID hotline went unanswered, some complained about waiting days to get tested on campus and others told stories about preparation at the quarantine areas set up by the university. Some professors were outraged that they weren’t notified that students in their classes had tested positive.

For all the planning the university says it did, the results of the past week reveal a lack of preparation. The question should have been when, not if, an uptick in cases occurred. And with months to prepare for reopening, the plans for quarantine centers and communications with students and faculty should have been solid.

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The challenge Notre Dame faces as it considers whether to pull the plug on in-person classes is huge. And they’re not alone. Michigan State University is shifting to a fully remote model for its fall semester even before many students have returned to campus, asking undergraduate students planning to live on campus to stay home. Last week, Purdue University suspended a cooperative house and 36 students for attending a party that didn’t follow guidelines for social distancing and masks. And Indiana University announced it is working to identify and suspend students who participated in a party after a video of the gathering was posted on Twitter.

In his Times op-ed, Jenkins says the undertaking is “very much worth the remaining risk.” But with students circulating throughout the community at large, it’s not just the safety of the campus community that’s a concern. Students who wander off campus and visit local establishments are potentially putting local residents at risk. We all have a stake in what students are doing.

All of Notre Dame’s missteps should serve as a warning sign for other universities that are reopening. The lesson: Do not make the same assumptions, and be prepared to do the right thing — not just in handling cases, but also ending in-person instruction if necessary.