Trinity Coronavirus Reopening Plan Fraught With Flaws

Brendan W. Clark ’21

Editor-in-Chief

Trinity College, though not alone in the realm of higher education, has wandered like its compatriots into the maw of naivety that it can reopen and welcome students back in a safe learning environment. This proposition is offered as a pandemic which has claimed the lives of 150,000 Americans and infected more than four million continues to rage in every state nationwide.  

Forgive my assertive tone, but with lives in balance and the fact that Trinity exists within and is inseparable from the community that surrounds it, it has become increasingly difficult to not consider the flaws ripe in this reopening program.

Any reading of the College’s “return to school” plans—specifically in light of the email this afternoon from Vice President for Student Success and Enrollment Management Joe DiChristina—reflects clearly that the principal objective of the College is to ensure its continued financial existence. It likewise suggests nothing short of willful ignorance as to how students (myself included) act when set free on a contained, sixty-acre campus situated in an urban environment. 

Do we, as a nation, expect that every person will wear a mask and adhere to social distancing requirements? Of course not, that is precisely the raison d’être of the present pandemic resurgence in almost every state but Massachusetts and those in the Tri-state area. So, what possible shred of evidence can the College evince that demonstrates that every student will adhere to these requirements when a myriad of adults do not? 

In the world of the pandemic, all of us possess the actus reus of failing to be safe at some point or another: the collegiate world is no different.

Fear not, Trinity has an unassailable piece of evidence that resolves all concerns! A “Community Contract”—three pieces of paper—which will bind every student to have concern for their fellow student’s common welfare and will ensure that no mask is ever removed on the Quad on a sweltering August afternoon. Like most abstract statements that appeal to virtue, this contract will—assuredly—reach the unparalleled levels of success attributed to Trinity’s extant Social Code and the Student Handbook, which, as we all know, have always prevented acts of cheating, vandalism, sexism, racism, and every other perfidious act that plagues our campus year after year.

As a student myself, the notion that each and every one of my fellow students will adhere to every aspect of social distancing is a preposterous one, at odds with statistics and plain logic. Students are students: we are young, science tells us we are more prone to take risks, and I see no reason why those risks will suddenly be averted because Dean DiChristina has requested our cooperation in an email or the President has asked us to “Protect the Nest.” 

This is not to mention the Constitutional and likely legal violations of restricting travel to and from campus and to particular states (which Trinity has not addressed in questions from the Tripod previously): “you may not travel (leave campus or leave your off-campus housing) for non-essential reasons at any time,” reads this new Community Contract. I see: so, Campus Safety will stop me from getting in my car to join the denizens of Vernon at Bar Taco on a Friday night? Visiting the Elizabeth Park Rose Garden for a serene Sunday afternoon? Forget about it: we all shall be “brave men all, prisoners of Jarvis.”

Will I be interrogated by Trinity officials as I leave for a “family emergency,” whatever that term may even mean in the eyes of the administration? What justification must I provide? To whom will I report my comings and goings in this Orwellian fantasy land of admonition and restriction? So far as we know, adhering to the contract is an act of faith, and one whose mechanisms for enforceability remain elusive.

While there will not be any student gatherings or Greek Life functions happening this fall (questions which Trinity had, as with travel restrictions off-campus, declined to answer when pressed by the Tripod prior to today’s announcement), gatherings of fewer than 25 are permitted in communal spaces outdoors and gatherings of ten are permitted indoors. Nothing would bring me greater joy than to see ten mask-wearing students spaced six feet apart in the basement of Psi U, safeguarding their solo cups and ensuring that not one averment of the “Community Contract” is contravened. Will my dreams of these socially distant mini-raves be realized? Only time will tell. 

In fact, we have evidence that Trinity has been presented with clear violations of social distancing and basic coronavirus safety measures and has failed to act: when festivities around the Class of 2020’s graduation occurred on-campus against Dean DiChristina’s request, some graduating students who had proliferated on Allen Place anyway were rewarded with gift bags. Plenty of masks were off and plenty of people were six inches, much less six feet, from one another.

And, of course, Trinity will be able to assure social distancing when it brings back almost 1,700 students—more than half of its student population—while larger institutions with more resources and larger campuses, such as Yale (with a 1,015 acre campus no less), bring back three of their four classes on a rotating schedule across two semesters rather than everyone at once. 

Apparently, Trinity’s administration has failed to read the latest from the Hartford Courant, which reported last week that in the month of July, young adults in Connecticut aged 20-29 have accounted for “more than 23% of new patients.” This is July, when the thousands of students who come to Connecticut for their education from across the country have yet to return. Naturally, the statistics suggest that August can only improve. 

Need we look further, The New York Times found more than 6,600 cases linked to colleges and universities nationwide, with 112 at UConn alone and 1 at Trinity (which the Times neglected to mention). What makes us think that, with the first wave of the virus not yet concluded, that the College will miraculously escape injury and illness? 

For financial motivation, we needn’t look further than the fee that students will eventually pay for pre-arrival tests, where a “one-time individual cost (approximately $150) [is added] to student bills later in the semester.” 

And so, the cat comes out of the bag: Trinity reopens and gets to take  $15,300 for room and board for a housing experience ripe with restrictions (and a dining experience that remains unannounced), and also gets to make-up a portion of its reopening costs with an added fee to a tuition cost that is already the highest in Connecticut and among the highest in the nation. 

Trinity will, of course, purchase an expensive testing platform (some estimates from the Associated Press, via the New York Times, place plans easily at $5 million or above) that will “provide very frequent testing of all students in the first few weeks” and a “regular cadence after that.” Like the “beat, beat, beat of the tom-tom,” it seems that the “very frequent” testing will dissipate into a dull roar after a few weeks on campus when all students have behaved, and nobody exercises their freedom of movement in violation of the fabled Community Contract. 

While higher education has doubtless suffered as a result of the pandemic, Trinity has reaped what it has sewn in its financial station in recent years as other NESCACs have soared. That, however, is a topic for another day. 

I don’t dispute here the necessity of the College’s reopening to assure its financial stability, nor do I deny that the College’s administration faces an uphill battle and the pressure of falling into line with other institutions. In doing what they can, the administration has made an effort that I may even call noble during the course of the pandemic. Their efforts to make available the Koeppel Center as a surge location during the height of the crisis in Connecticut should be lauded. 

But that nobility can only extend so far: we need now a moment of honest reckoning. This reopening plan, as it has been presented, does not carry as its priority student health and welfare. Alas, even our President’s Master’s in Public Health cannot alone be the lynchpin upon which the success of our reopening will rest. 

Rather, the plan is rooted in the wishful thinking that our students, for some reason, will act more swiftly than the citizenry of the majority of this country have to avert a coronavirus resurgence. In the liberal arts, we’re asked to challenge opinions and consider evidence from the panoply of intellectual disciplines: by my reading of science, the news, and plain logic, the scales tilt precipitously toward failure. 

While I pray the College proves me wrong, for now I greet the fall semester with an unusual (and mounting) degree of trepidation.

Godspeed, Trincoll, is all that one is left to say.  

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