Tuesday, August 18, 2020

An Open Letter to the University of Notre Dame Student Body re: COVID-19

At noon today, a friend informed me that Father Jenkins, President at the University of Notre Dame was hosting a press conference. I expected an announcement about football and instead I came to learn the following. 

Father John said

"We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of positive cases of COVID-19 in your first weeks back on campus. After a .03% positive rate for our testing before students returned to campus, just 33 positives for nearly 12,000 tests, we've now had 147 positive cases at our testing site on campus. The spike in cases is very serious, and we must take serious steps to address it," said Jenkins Tuesday evening. "Upon receiving recent results, we began to make plans to send you home and continue instruction online as we did last spring. However, with the advice and encouragement of Dr. Mark Fox, we have decided to take steps short of sending students home, at least for the time being, while protecting the health and safety of the campus community. For at least the next two weeks, we will move undergraduate classes to remote instruction, close public space on campus, and restrict residence halls to residents only. Off-campus students should remain in your residences off-campus, associate with housemates only, and not come to campus for this period. We must be diligent in wearing masks, keeping distance, washing hands and completing the daily health check. We previously set a limit for any gathering at 20 people. The limit now will be 10 people, always wearing masks and maintaining physical distance. The objective of these temporary restrictions is to contain the spread of the virus so that we can get back to in-person instruction. If these steps are not successful, we will have to send students home, as we did last spring. 

Please take care of yourself and others by carefully following our health protocols and challenge friends and classmates to do the same. The virus is a formidable foe. For the past week, it has been winning. Let us, as the Fighting Irish, join together to contain it. We ask as always, for the intercession of Notre Dame, Our Lady, and for God's help. 

Many people have said  "it was just a matter of time" and that it was "bound to happen." My sentiments, however, are different.  You and I might not agree, but based on what I have learned, I believe this is what the student body must do. And so I write this post as an open letter to the student body—the men and women who say "we are ND."

Yes, I am disappointed. No, I do not think the University was arrogant or "dumb" to have students return to campus in early August for in-person classes. Indeed, I am angry at the students who ignored norms and protocols that we all must follow. Truly, sadness filled my heart for over 11,000+ students who remain healthy and hopeful for a semester on campus. But, if I believe in Notre Dame and its student body in the way I say that I do—or at least want to—I can't sit with cynicism. Pointing fingers leaves me nowhere. Now is not the time to assume anything. I reviewed the decisions of the University and I stand behind the leadership. AND I want Notre Dame to live up to its name. Yes we are the Fighting Irish, but the motto of the Alumni Association speaks even louder to me. And as an alumna, I want students to know what we have been challenged to be: A Force for Good.

As an educational institution and a community of faith, students are called to make great sacrifices in the days and weeks ahead. As a Christian, this task is not unfamiliar to me. For the sake of the common good, the greater good—and at this point me own good!—I am willing to put the needs of others before mine. I must die to self so that others may live. The leadership at the University has made this call loud and clear, it is for the students to shoulder and share the same burden. 

Most people I know do not think this is remotely possible. While it may be unlikely for young men and women to forgo social events, people and places that require self-discipline and intentionality, this two-week window has been offered as an opportunity to demonstrate that what you have been afforded is worth fighting for. I have always believed if you ask little of young people, you will get it. While you never want to set the bar impossibly high, when we set it low...the results speak for themselves. Maybe we need to be very specific. Continuing to engage in the hook-up culture, binge drinking, and partying can and will lead to a semester in San Francisco and not South Bend. 

Truth be told, South Bend is a reason you have been able to return to classes and campus, period. Matt Fortuna of The Athletic said, "Here's the thing about Notre Dame: For the most part, it's been proactive with everything related to COVID-19.Small campus. Smart people. Brought students back early. Transparent (see the dashboard). It's the closest thing to a bubble that exists among FBS schools. And yet... " that bubble isn't totally impenetrable. 

For years, I have heard alumni speak of what it means to be a Notre Dame man. According to the Wall Street Journal, "The rash of cases has been linked to at least two off-campus parties, and the majority of students testing positive are senior undergraduates, mostly male, said school spokesman Paul Browne." I am certain when Father Hesburgh referred to an alum as a Notre Dame man, he was not referring to an individual who put others are risk. A Notre Dame man does not recklessly pursue his own whims and desires above the needs of others. I encourage the men of Notre Dame to wear that mantle and honor the legacy of the Notre Dame men who have gone before you. Step it up and make better decisions.

As a member of the Notre Dame Women Connect board, I would like to give more thought and promote what it means to be a Notre Dame woman. I have a strong sense that this ideal means that we look to Our Lady. She exhibited great strength of mind and heart to carry her Son, Our Lord amidst controversy and confusion. She stood by him even as he carried his cross. She was the first disciple; she is the greatest of all saints. I urge the women of Notre Dame to look to Mary as a model of strength and courage in the days and weeks ahead.

I am a high school teacher and an athletic director. I want nothing more than to be with students and to have them be with one another for their educational, spiritual, social and emotional well being. Wearing a mask, keeping socially distant, regularly washing hands and forgoing (college) norms are a small price to pay for the alternative, which we do not have this quarter and most likely this semester at St. Francis High School, where I work. Furthermore, as an educator, I am always in need of examples and exemplars. My message, belief and hopes have efficacy when I can point to those who have been a Force for Good by making the right decisions. We need you; I need you to show the world we can be different....and not because of empty promises or self-ordained prophecies...but rather because of thoughtful and careful choices.

In two weeks time, I might be wrong. This might be too idealistic. I have learned to let go and trust the powers that decide was is best for all. That being said, whether or not you identify as a Catholic Christian, or understand what it means to be a Notre Dame man or a Notre Dame woman, you have been asked "What would you fight for?" You have cheered "We are ND!" Now is the time to model the mission of the University you will one day call alma mater. I hope and pray you and your teachers stay healthy in body and spirit. You are in my prayers as is the leadership who has hope we truly might be a Force for Good in a world that needs it.

Post Script: It might be selfish on my part, but I needed to write this letter as much as I want students to read it. I stand behind my belief in the administration and in my hope for students. Someone has to believe in them, and so let it be me. Perhaps that is what it means to be a Notre Dame Woman....

I realize that no part of me wanting to change the virus can or does change it. And yet, this community showed up to campus testing 99.7% negative (yes, we are people of privilege!). That was inspiring to me.

Students already make high risk decisions all the time. I shudder when I think of my own irresponsible behavior with alcohol as an undergrad. Furthermore, the number of asymptomatic cases (Fauci has said between 20% to 40%...as high as 45%) makes this a tough part of the equation. What is at stake has not changed, it’s just that much more pressing... And to a large degree, though not entirely, it is in the hands of students now. In the meantime, my hands are held in prayer for the administration who has done more work than anyone will ever realize to get this semester off the ground and for students to help one another. Thank you. Anne Stricherz '96, Farley Hall

Photo Credits
Students on campus
ND Women Connect
Force for Good

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written, Anne. I had not read/heard Fr. Jenkins. I am impressed by his and your logic and concern. Go Irish!