To Understand the April Outbreak, We Must Recognize Administrative Failures

Fraternity parties are not the only cause of UChicago’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

By Maroon Editorial Board

We get it. The COVID-19 outbreak this quarter sucked, especially as we were beginning to see an end to the pandemic as more people get vaccinated. Students who vacationed over spring break and attended parties early in the quarter contributed to viral spread and led to restrictions on the entire student body. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but it’s not unexpected either. When we look back on the outbreak, we cannot focus exclusively on personal responsibility and ignore administrative failings. We must also acknowledge that the University’s mishandling of dormitory life and academic policy during the pandemic created the perfect conditions for springtime parties.

We know people are lonely and exhausted. The members of The Maroon Editorial Board have not met in our Ida Noyes office in more than a year. Most RSOs, whose activities have been reduced to Zoom meetings and virtual hangouts, are in similar situations. But, as parties earlier this quarter proved, some organizations have carried on as if the pandemic had ended, with their careless behavior delaying a much-desired return to normalcy. Fraternity parties during a pandemic are irresponsible and unsafe; anyone even vaguely cognizant of COVID-19 knows that. Being desperate for social connection is not a good reason to endanger the well-being of our community, and we condemn the partying. But a closer look at the last few weeks shows that the only way to effectively control unsafe gatherings is to change the administrative responses to COVID-19.

Instead of accommodating students and helping them adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, the University administration has insisted on a relentless march forward. It eliminated the universal pass-fail option this fall and reduced quarters to nine weeks last spring, but this much-needed leniency has been absent since then. It would seem they thought the return of more students to Hyde Park meant that academic affairs could return to normal.

That, of course, is not the case. A glance at UChicago Secrets should tell you as much: Students have been forced to manage a full UChicago course load without universal accommodations during a crisis of historic proportions. We feel overworked; we feel lost; we feel burdened by a pandemic for which we are not personally responsible yet which makes worse almost every facet of our daily lives. We need spaces where we can recharge and connect with our peers in a safe manner. Unfortunately, the University’s regulations effectively rendered such spaces useless.

Coming to UChicago, students are eager to learn, make friends, take part in house and campus traditions, and form connections with the wider community. But the Class of 2024 has not enjoyed the traditions and joys of a typical first year. College is a short and busy four years, and having one of those years marred by the pandemic is an upsetting reality. The University has failed to provide meaningful opportunities and activities that meet students’ social and emotional needs while holding them to the same academic expectations as any other year. Yes, there have been a number of online events, but these are hardly an adequate replacement for face-to-face connection. We believe there were opportunities this year for safe, University-sponsored outdoor events and innovative social experiences that would have given students a break from blue light and an opportunity to engage their peers in person.

The University used the pandemic to justify many of its newest campus housing policies, but those rules have proved ineffectual, even counterproductive, to promoting safe student recreation. For example, Housing and Residence Life has insisted on closing house lounges at 10 p.m., even though the virus does not spread any differently at night. The University also banned students from having alcohol in residence halls presumably because it expects that students would otherwise gather in cramped dorm rooms and drink en masse. Instead of inhibiting students living on campus from drinking with their peers, though, this act of prohibition aggravates the problem it purports to solve: It leaves off-campus apartments and fraternity houses as the easiest places for dorm residents to consume alcohol.

Even worse, enforcing the dry campus rule forces resident assistants (RAs) and resident heads (RHs) to over-police their residents just to ensure there are no 18-year-old bootleggers running around. In being forced to assume more punitive roles, RAs and RHs may lose their residents’ trust, compromising their ability to properly support them.

Ultimately, the administration’s failure in handling this outbreak stems from its conflicting positions on fraternities and sororities. At best, this inconsistent position reveals that the University will only acknowledge Greek life when it’s advantageous; at worst, it enables dangerous situations like the recent outbreak. Rumors of frat parties have swirled all year long, but recent events only received sustained administrative attention because of the ensuing outbreak. Had the University tried to prevent frat parties during the pandemic, the obvious threat they pose to public health may never have been realized. 

It is the University’s responsibility to create and enforce clear, fair policies to protect the community during a public health crisis. We, along with the rest of the country, hope that the COVID-19 pandemic is finally waning in the United States. But the University must be ready to guide us back to normal with policies that prioritize students’ physical and mental health. They could start by asking students, especially those in residence halls, what we need most.