By Danny Whirlow
The saga of America’s clunky response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been played out. All summer, the news detailed every public health guideline, government mandate and event cancellation, including the trepid reactions that often followed. During this time, colleges began to create plans from the existing data to get their students on campus for the fall semester. Saint Vincent was no different. On May 15, President Taylor announced the formation of the Forward Together Committee. The group of administrators, faculty and health care professionals would work with the president’s cabinet to ensure a safe and productive return. And so far, Saint Vincent has fared far better than other colleges by the numbers.
Dr. Elaine Bennett, associate professor of sociology/anthropology, drew on her experience in the public health field to help the committee draft the guidelines for campus life. “Throughout the entire process…our objective has been to structure a safe environment that reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission while allowing students to benefit from the dynamics of an in-person learning environment,” Bennett said. Speaking of the public health process broadly, she explained that “a guiding principle is to balance risk reduction, acceptability, and feasibility. We generally try to avoid putting rules in place that will be hard to follow, especially if their contribution to overall risk reduction is low.”
These guidelines were codified in the Health and Safety Plan. With it came the Community Commitment, standards students are expected to uphold “to protect ourselves and others and to be accountable, together, for our health.” Both are available for viewing on the MySV Portal. Dr. Bennett noted that while the committee counted on Saint Vincent’s sense of community and a desire to stay on campus as key motivating factors for obedience, they knew some would not cooperate. Thus, an anonymous reporting mechanism was included alongside the Community Commitment. Similar forms have been employed on campuses in Missouri and Texas, among other states.
Dr. John Smetanka, vice president of academic affairs and chairman of the Forward Together Committee, deals with these violation forms. He shared that the committee has generally found “good compliance” to the commitment, though there are still “lapses.”
“When violations are reported […] the appropriate office follows up. This might be Student Affairs, Academic Affairs or the Human Resources office,” Dr. Smetanka said. “The general approach is one of conversation and education—making sure that everyone knows the guidelines of the Health and Safety Plan.”
He also stressed that “willful, reckless, or repeated disregard” for the plan and the commitment are grounds for stronger disciplinary action and even removal from campus. No such action has needed to be taken as of now.
The policies and guidelines have garnered mixed reactions among students. Madison Kozera, a freshman English major, stated that while the policies have been little more than an occasional annoyance, they’ve impacted her social life the most.
“I still feel like I haven’t gotten to know anybody at all on campus, especially in the freshmen class,” Kozera said.
And senior chemical engineering major Eric Pennella expressed frustration about the guidelines.
“I think the guidelines for COVID are unnecessary,” Pennella said, explaining that “we are in classes with [our friends], we can eat with them, study with them, play sports with them, but we can’t have them over in our rooms. It makes you feel like you’re a prisoner and the only thing we are allowed to do is homework.”
On Sept. 16, Dr. Smetanka applauded Bearcats for complying with the Community Commitment and the other health policies for the first five weeks of the semester. He emphasized that “to date, we are aware of no transmissions on campus” of COVID-19. Even with this success, no policies are to change, with Dr. Smetanka encouraging the community to “maintain the effort and discipline so that we may finish health and strong.”