How college newspapers emerged as a powerful voice in holding administrators responsible as COVID-19 cases on campus rise

·11 min read
College newspapers are already holding university administrations responsible for COVID-19 cases as students return to campus. (Photo: Getty Images)
College newspapers are already holding university administrations responsible for COVID-19 cases as students return to campus. (Photo: Getty Images)

Student-run papers at universities across the country are holding their administrators responsible for the potential health hazards of having students on campus during the coronavirus pandemic by publishing opinion pieces pointing the blame for negative outcomes and pleading not to have the responsibility of writing obituaries as COVID-19 takes its toll.

The editorial board at the Daily Tar Heel — the independent student-run newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — was the first to make headlines on Aug. 16 with a piece titled “We all saw this coming.” Collectively, the board referred to the four COVID-19 clusters that popped up on UNC’s campus within the first week of campus as a “clusterf***” and pointed fingers at the institution’s higher-ups.

“University leadership should have expected students, many of whom are now living on their own for the first time, to be reckless. Reports of parties throughout the weekend come as no surprise. Though these students are not faultless, it was the University’s responsibility to disincentivize such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in-person earlier on,” the piece reads. “The administration continues to prove they have no shame, and the bar for basic decency keeps getting lower.”

The editorial board claimed the administration ignored recommendations made in July by the Orange County (N.C.) Health Department and the CDC when it came to inviting students back to on-campus housing. While the faculty is on-campus as well for the sake of teaching in-person classes, the piece claims that they too knew the risks.

“Now, as we prepare for a second week of classes, many questions remain unanswered. What factors will trigger the so-called off-ramps, and what will they look like? How many positive cases will it take for the University to realize the danger they’ve put us in?” the editorial board writes. “We’re angry — and we’re scared. We’re tired of the gaslighting, tired of the secrecy, tired of being treated like cash cows by a University with such blatant disregard for our lives.”

The Daily Tar Heel didn’t immediately respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. Days after the piece was published, UNC-Chapel Hill announced that all undergraduate in-person instruction would shift to remote learning with the expectation that students change their residential plans. In response to the editorial published in the student newspaper, UNC-Chapel Hill spokesperson Leslie Minton tells Yahoo Life, “The Daily Tar Heel is an independent student newspaper that has served an important role for our campus community for more than 100 years. Carolina’s student journalists are the next generation of leaders in their field, and we are proud of their tenacity and their hard work.”

A similar tenacity has been demonstrated by a number of other college newspaper editorial boards, including that of the Observer, a student-run paper reporting stories that affect the student communities at the University of Notre Dame, St. Mary’s College and Holy Cross College. Published on Friday, the piece tapped into the fear felt by students on all three campuses as the board implored, “Don’t make us write obituaries.”

“When we learned the institutions within the tri-campus community intended to have students return for the fall semester, we experienced a variety of emotions — excitement to reunite with our friends, relief to return to the classroom following the difficulties of remote instruction and reluctance to acknowledge that the in-person semester we were promised could be taken away at a moment’s notice,” the piece reads. “Two weeks into the semester, our worries are close to reality.”

The piece similarly spoke to what the editorial board saw as failures in each of the school’s systems for testing, contact tracing and providing accommodations for students to self-isolate. Both actions and inactions by administrators were called out — including Notre Dame’s sudden announcement that it was suspending in-person instruction — in addition to examples of COVID-19 tracking dashboards that students would like to see to provide transparency. The board argued that the blame for a surge in coronavirus cases needs to be shared among students, faculty, staff and administrators.

Paul Browne, Notre Dame’s vice president for public affairs and communications, tells Yahoo Life that the university agrees with the Observer’s sentiments. “As was made clear in the university’s letter to students on Aug. 18 and the Observer editorial on Aug. 21, we’re on the same page. The editorial put it well: ‘The blame for this does not lie with just one party. We — as students, faculty, staff and administrators — need to share responsibility for the outbreak on our hands,’” he says. “We are all in this together, and it’s only by working together that we can stay safe and continue to stay on campus for the remainder of the semester.”

Still, the editorial team serving the larger community expressed the need for more action.

“We implore members of the tri-campus community to do everything within their power to approach this virus in an appropriate and serious manner. Otherwise, we fear the worst is yet to come,” it concludes. “Don’t make us write a tri-campus employee’s obituary. Don’t make us write an administrator’s obituary. Don’t make us write a custodian’s obituary. Don’t make us write a dining hall worker’s obituary. Don’t make us write a professor’s obituary. Don’t make us write a classmate’s obituary. Don’t make us write a friend’s obituary. Don’t make us write a roommate’s obituary. Don’t make us write yours.”

Students at Syracuse University and the University of Maryland followed suit, respectively, with pieces responding to their administrations’ handling of the pandemic published on that same Friday. Both the Daily Orange and the Diamondback addressed that classes hadn’t yet started at their schools, but that wouldn’t take away from the need for their voices and fears surrounding the possible coronavirus spread to be heard.

“When more than 100 freshmen gathered in the middle of campus, abandoning public health guidelines and leaving masks in their dorms, they endangered not only SU students, faculty and staff, but also the greater Syracuse community. Their actions were egregiously selfish, detached from reality and lacking in compassion,” the Daily Orange piece reads, referring to a Wednesday evening party that violated the university’s Stay Safe Pledge. “But these students cannot be the sole recipients of blame. The response to the incident from SU and [Department of Public Safety] leaves many questions unanswered.”

Writers at the Diamondback went one step further to encourage people to fault administrators if coronavirus cases spike once students are back on campus. The editorial team even claimed that the university is pushing the reopening for the sake of money.

“The move to reopen isn’t coming out of nowhere. The University System of Maryland has been pushing its member institutions to plan a hybrid fall semester since May. And a dearth of public funding — which has been worsened by the pandemic — has left the university overly reliant on money from tuition and room and board. Housing revenue depends on students coming to campus and living in the university’s dorms,” the piece reads. “But chasing that money means literally risking lives and contributing to the spread of the virus in the state and the county — an area that has already been hit hard.”

Although the Diamondback states that the school’s fall semester starts on Aug. 31, communication from president Darryll Pines dated Aug. 10 clarifies that undergraduate in-person instruction has been postponed until Sept. 14. In response to the newspaper’s editorial, a spokesperson for the university pointed Yahoo Life in the direction of a letter addressed to the University of Maryland community from Pines on Monday.

“I have heard the argument that higher education decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic are driven either by safety or money. I do not agree. It is possible to prioritize health and safety in decision-making, while still working to provide our students an academically and socially rich on-campus experience and preserving the jobs and livelihoods of people who have served our campus community for years. We have consistently made decisions that put health first,” the letter reads in part. “I have faith that we have put the strongest possible plan in place. It’s now up to us. Together.”

While gearing up for the first weeks back at the University of Mississippi, writers at the Daily Mississippian answered the question “Are we ready?” with a “Hell no.” They too pointed to making money as the reason behind the school’s reopening, but explained that the ultimate downfall of people campuswide will be the “blame game.”

“When it comes to a global pandemic, there is no one guilty party. People will die from the decisions that are made, but it seems that to the University of Mississippi community — from students to administrators, athletics and Greek organizations — the worst thing that could happen is taking the blame for a shutdown,” the piece reads. “The blame game will only result in loss, with people in Oxford ending up on a ventilator. And that’s if they’re lucky enough to access a ventilator or an ICU bed.”

The piece highlights the threat already posed by positive COVID-19 cases within Greek life and “masses of freshmen” seen without masks, while also claiming that the term “unprecedented” is untrue after the university began to deal with the coronavirus back in March. And although they say, “We know this school year is ruined,” the editorial board asks questions about the tipping point or “death toll” that will ultimately send students packing.

“All we can do is encourage everyone to follow the rules,” the editorial concludes. “Hopefully, we can reduce as much damage as we can, but make no mistake, the choices already made are going to cause damage we can’t stop.”

In a piece published Monday, the OUDaily editorial board asked the University of Oklahoma administration: “What are we going to do when people start dying?”

The independent student-run paper pointed to a number of issues that echo the fears of the student bodies on campuses across the U.S. The OUDaily, however, wouldn’t let leaders off the hook without posing more vital questions — including those about students who don’t have the finances to afford getting sick, who have preexisting medical conditions or those whose mental health will suffer from a shift to online classes after having already returned to campus.

“Will a student ever truly get over the grief of infecting a professor, roommate or loved one — and potentially causing their death? This is the impossible reality students must now face because OU has placed an arbitrary priority on mask-to-mask instruction for the few weeks we’ll ultimately be on campus,” the board writes.

Neither the University of Mississippi nor the University of Oklahoma immediately responded to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. However, they are far from the only higher learning institutions scrambling to respond to both the risks and concerns put forward by their student bodies.

“We wanted to come back. But not like this,” the OUDaily reads. “And it’s just going to get worse — in fact, it probably already has.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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