“Don’t make us write obituaries.”
This is the jarring plea that editors at The Observer — the student-run publication that covers Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s University and Holy Cross College — made on the newspaper’s front page on Friday, August 21. After learning of the university’s decision to temporarily suspend in-person classes rather than give everyone the option to go home (like The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) recently announced they were going to do), the concerned students asked the question on everyone’s minds: Why?
“We longed to return to South Bend while in quarantine last semester,” the editors wrote. “Now, we are at risk of hurting the community we’ve come to know and love.”
Since Notre Dame began its fall semester on August 10, university officials have been under scrutiny for their mishandling of COVID-19 outbreaks on campus. As of August 27, the university has tested 4,738 students and confirmed 512 COVID-19 cases, bringing the overall positivity rate to approximately 10.8 percent.
University officials have said that they will switch to remote learning for the remainder of the fall semester if the virus continues to spread. However, things seem to be looking up — or at least, calming down — on campus: Only 12 of the 409 students tested on August 26 came back positive, which is a stark contrast to the 102 positive cases a little over a week prior.
Given what’s happened to the Notre Dame community since the fall semester, both students and faculty have been outspoken in their criticism of how things have been handled thus far.
On August 19, two Notre Dame professors created an online petition urging Rev. John I. Jenkins, head of the university, to give students the option to finish the fall semester remotely. The petition, which has more than 1,000 signatures, also claims that Notre Dame’s response to the outbreak thus far has been “woefully inadequate,” and says that “far more should be done to ensure health and safety.”
Many frustrated students have also turned to social media platforms like TikTok to vent their frustrations and share their horrifying experiences. On the video-sharing app, the hashtags #NotreDame and #GoIrish are flooded with videos of students getting tested, living in quarantine and cracking jokes about the university’s mismanagement of the situation.
Students aren’t putting the onus entirely on the university, though. When the case count at Notre Dame surpassed 100, one concerned student — junior Kirsten Young — decided to create an Instagram account devoted to raising awareness about the severity of the situation. That account — heresthewhy — shares anonymous submissions from members of the Notre Dame community explaining why they do their part to “prevent the spread.”
“By sharing anonymous ‘whys’ from members of the ND community, I hoped connecting personal stories to at-risk demographics on campus would resonate with students,” Young explained to In The Know. “I wanted these posts to start conversations and for students to realize how our actions impact others.”
Student journalists have been especially vocal and resourceful during this distressing time. Genevieve Redsten, a junior at Notre Dame studying English and anthropology, took her dissatisfaction to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where she interned this summer. In an op-ed, she detailed her harrowing experience trying to get tested and, once her results came back positive, her isolated life in quarantine.
“If this is a precursor to what will happen at other universities across the country, we’re in for a grim fall,” she wrote.
In an interview with In The Know, Redsten explained that after her boyfriend tested positive for COVID-19, she attempted to get tested as well — and was turned away.
“I share a bathroom with 40 girls on my floor so, knowing how contagious this disease is, that was worrisome.”
“I approached the gates of the testing center and asked if I could get a test and they told me that because I didn’t have symptoms I should just go back to my dorm and monitor my symptoms,” she said. “Obviously living in a dorm … I didn’t want to get my friends sick. I share a bathroom with 40 girls on my floor so, knowing how contagious this disease is, that was worrisome.”
Two days later, Redsten returned to the testing site and, after waiting several hours for a test, she was informed that her sample did indeed come back positive for COVID-19. Redsten, who had initially been sent back to her dorm where she cohabitates with dozens of other girls, was sick with a highly contagious virus.
According to Redsten, many of her friends have had similar experiences trying to get tested at the university. Students who “had been exposed” to the virus ended up waiting “several hours for testing and results,” if they weren’t turned away altogether.
To be sure, Notre Dame officials have taken notice of what’s happening on campus, and they’re working to course-correct it. On August 21, the university began randomly testing members of the student body in order to identify “asymptomatic and presymptomatic individuals” — in other words, people like Redsten.
The university has also apologized for failing to properly prepare for an inevitable outbreak. According to the South Bend Tribune, the school sent out a letter to the student body on August 18, acknowledging that it didn’t “respond to all student calls in the personal way we pride ourselves on at Notre Dame.” (Notre Dame officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)
Though the testing situation at Notre Dame has been bleak at best thus far, students have been generally pleased with the university’s quarantine accommodations — especially compared to New York University (NYU), where students have complained about receiving unsafe and untimely meals.
“I have had really awesome accommodations in quarantine,” Redsten said. Currently, the junior says she is holed up in a “super fancy” off-campus two-bedroom apartment all by herself with “more than enough food.”
On TikTok, other Notre Dame students in quarantine have raved about similarly pleasant experiences. One user who goes by cjohns46 on the app made a now-viral video showing off the meals delivered to her — and, as one TikTok noted, “everything [looks] amazing.”
At present, the fate of Notre Dame’s fall semester hangs in the balance. However, students remain cautiously optimistic that, by following safety protocols, testing students properly and frequently and maintaining social distancing measures, the school might actually have a shot at finishing the semester in person.
“A lot of students want to make this happen and want the collective action to be there,” Redsten said. “For the sake of public health and the quality of education that we’re receiving this semester, I hope it works out. But again, that remains to be seen.”
For more on what’s happening at colleges across the country, find out about the “paltry” meals being served to students at NYU.
More from In The Know: