Sororities and fraternities, COVID-style: How the pandemic has disrupted Greek life on campus

Under normal circumstances, Taleya Taylor and Javier Wilson — president and vice president, respectively, of Michigan State University’s National Pan-Hellenic Council, which represents the largest historically Black Greek-letter organizations, popularly known as the “Divine Nine” — would be ushering in the new school year with a flurry of in-person events, from Bid Day to formals to volunteering, while forming bonds with freshman recruits.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the circumstances have been anything but normal. Across the country, many college campuses have closed, pivoting instead to remote learning. Others have opened, paving the way for COVID-19 outbreaks, many of them, from Oklahoma State to Georgia Tech to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, stemming from Greek Row and resulting in entire sorority and fraternity houses being quarantined.

It’s just one of many disruptions the pandemic has had on Greek life over the past year. Dani Weatherford, CEO of the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC), which includes 26 national and international sororities, tells Yahoo Life that her organization created a contingency task force in the spring to tackle the logistics of holding recruitment (colloquially known as “rush”) and other social events during a pandemic. While Weatherford acknowledges that COVID-19 restrictions regarding gatherings can widely vary from city to city, meaning a chapter on one campus could host an event that might be banned elsewhere, on Aug. 17 the NPC issued guidance advising that member chapters “reconsider any in-person events” in light of “the impact of the pandemic and the growing numbers and concern across the country.”

“We asked them to shift or transition to a fully virtual experience for the rest of the summer,” Weatherford adds.

An Alpha Omicron Pi sorority sister at Indiana University in Bloomington, where several houses had to be quarantined. (Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
An Alpha Omicron Pi sorority sister at Indiana University in Bloomington, where several houses had to be quarantined. (Photo: Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

And so the recruitment experience — which typically involves freshmen students and other newcomers attending mixers and introductory meetings at multiple houses — has largely shifted to virtual meet-and-greets. Since the spring, as campuses first began to close in the early days of the pandemic, NPC has also worked to support taking chapter meetings and social gatherings online in order to help sororities “continue to flourish in a virtual setting.”

“So chapters went from having in-person meetings and events to virtual meetings and events,” says Weatherford. “Their members were all over the country, but they could gather. They had virtual education, and programming, particularly in the spring, when so many of our young women were experiencing some sort of isolation that could lead to some mental health concerns, family members may be contracting the virus, losing their jobs ... “

The parties often associated with sororities and fraternities have over the past several months pivoted into Zoom game nights and online formals; community service opportunities, another linchpin of Greek life, has included making masks or supporting frontline workers during the pandemic.

But while chapters are still working to keep members connected and seeking creative ways to replicate the full Greek experience, fighting off feelings of isolation is a “struggle,” Wilson, a member of the Delta Kappa chapter of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, tells Yahoo Life.

“We had to adjust and figure out different ways to still be inclusive and get the greater community to feel some sense of home and familiarity,” says Wilson, who is living back at home rather than pay rent while taking classes online this semester. “But it's been a struggle. I believe nobody has really been through a pandemic before. So we're all just trying to do the best that we can, honestly.”

His classmate and fellow Divine Nine member Taylor agrees that it’s hard to find a “genuine connection” without the standard in-person interactions, particularly for incoming freshmen.

“You don't have that access to see the freshmen that are coming in because you know, we're here,” she says of distance learning. “So the only way that they would be able to access us is by utilizing our social media platforms ... We would usually have a ‘Meet the Greeks’ [event] ... We do have to figure out how we're going to do that now, because that is where a lot of people made those different connections to the different organizations that they did want to be a part of.”

Says Ernest Evans, coordinator of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs at Howard University: “We can't physically be in the same space as our own fraternity brothers and sisters, or even those who are interested in being part of our organizations.”

This year’s Homecoming celebration, for instance, won’t be a physical one.

“Those traditions aren't lost, but delayed,” he laments.

For those co-eds who are physically back on campus, keeping safe has come with its own set of challenges. In August, photos of sorority sisters from the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus wearing masks as they took part in a scaled-back and staggered but in-person Bid Day — when new recruits are invited to join a chapter — went viral; two weeks later, it was reported that more than 1,000 students had tested positive for COVID-19.

Though guidelines vary on a case-by-case basis, Weatherford tells Yahoo Life that many chapter houses have implemented risk-mitigating COVID protocols for members living in close quarters, such as banning non-residents and staffers; serving meals as individually wrapped portions rather than a buffet or family-style set-up; rearranging furniture to maintain a safe social distance; insisting on masks in common areas; and adopting more rigorous sanitizing procedures.

“A lot of our member organizations have also asked their members to sign a wellness pledge or a health pledge,” says Weatherford, “so that they are committed to each day taking their temperature, running [through] a series of checklist items: How am I feeling? Should I tell someone that I'm not feeling well? What's the next step if I need to be in isolation?”

And should an outbreak occur — as it has in dozens of sorority and fraternity houses since the fall semester began — residential facilities are “making arrangements for quarantine space” for any members who test positive.

Despite the disruption and risks, Weatherford says some NPC campuses have seen “record-breaking registration numbers” in terms of interest from new recruits. She attributes that in part to the pressing desire for community and connection during these trying times, “particularly for women who can't go to their campus right now and experiencing virtual classrooms.”

“It may just be across the screen for right now,” says Weatherford, “but they are building relationships. They're finding mentors, they're building their network. So when they do end up on campus or are going to in-person classes, they have a network already built ... Whenever the classes open back up again, what a feeling that will be to finally meet people in person .... They will want to hug one another and they'll want to be close to one another. And when they're able to do that, I think that sorority will mean even more to them.”

— Video produced by Kelly Matousek

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