Brendan W. Clark
As a student at Trinity College, any notion that this semester was in some way something to be celebrated seems the antithesis of my experience this fall. By any measure, this semester was a trial of epoch proportions, defined by uncertainty and beset—most significantly—by a lack of clear, honest communication.
I am editor of Trinity’s student newspaper, The Trinity Tripod, and it often seems as if I correspond with administrators daily as we investigate and provide needed coverage to the community about outbreaks and the College’s response to the virus.
I can appreciate the immense effort that administrators at Trinity invested to make on-campus learning a possibility. That is no enviable task and not a challenge I would wish to have. But at its core, this experience—as a student—was not one that demonstrated our best. I did not see the “resilience, care for community, and responsibility for yourself and others” that President Joanne Berger-Sweeney spoke of in a Dec. 1 letter to the Courant.
Instead, I saw many a student with their mask down from my view in the journalism office and know plenty of students who were reprimanded for indoor gatherings and social functions on Allen Place. Sure, many students complied with the regulations, but as with any group at any point in human history, many did not.
We delude ourselves if we suggest that the outbreaks at Trinity were merely the result of small interactions: that is not what I see on social media. What I see on social media is trips to restaurants, to West Hartford, and the usual pleasures of off-campus exploration, despite a campus wide policy against non-essential travel.
Trinity College ended the semester with 104 student cases, a few dozen short of Yale’s 170 in New Haven. Yale elected to bring back 3,500 of its 6,000 undergraduates and most of its extensive graduate network numbering nearly 7,500. Wesleyan, with 3,200 students, had only 39 infections by the end of the semester. Among our peers, we had more than 100 cases processed on-campus, a staggering number for schools of comparable size given that Trinity’s population is only about 2,100 students.
Our coronavirus dashboard, updated twice a week, pales in comparison to the daily updates at peer schools such as Amherst and Colby. Out of 11 schools in Trinity’s peer group, the New England Small College Athletic Conference, only Trinity and Wesleyan decline to update their dashboards daily. From the perspective of students, there is simply no reason for this: depending on when we take them, we (and, thus, the College) get our tests back every day of the week.
Our October outbreak, which had 56 cases, overwhelmed College isolation facilities and resulted in infected students being placed in residential dormitories that were on the same floor as non-infected students, contrary to prevailing public health guidance which encourages as much separation as possible. As Keith Grant, an infectious disease specialist at Hartford Healthcare and advisor to Trinity told the Tripod this year, the best-case scenario for isolation is to have students “not just in a separate room, but in a separate dormitory.” It is “very difficult,” Grant added, “to control viral spread when students are isolated only in a room.”
There was no announcement or communication of the decision to place students on the same dormitory floors until well after the fact. That absence of communication certainly seems to shelter students from the “complex, real-world problems” our College is facing.
That moment, when the College finally told students after a weekend marked by fear and concern, was what shook my confidence the most. If this small liberal arts college wants to build the skills necessary to exist in our world, we need to embrace candor and trust at this time of uncertainty. This is when it matters most. Students should learn of coronavirus response decisions not by inquiring with janitorial staff, but from the College itself.
We should not celebrate what was chaotic and uncertain as a learning experience to be lauded. We should be thankful that faculty survived with a minimal number of positive cases and we should be grateful that many students have recovered.
As I enter my final semester, I hope to see Trinity take the importance of honest communication to heart. What our College needs most this spring is communication about our failings and what steps we will take to be better in the spring to correct our failings this fall.