It’s day six in quarantine for me. I had been to a total of seven classes before I was told to stay off campus for over two weeks. I’m not infected myself, but I had been in contact with someone who tested positive. I wasn’t at the same party gym as her. I live with her. Taking every precaution I could have, I was still exposed.
My roommate got an email on Monday informing her that she had been in a class with someone who tested positive. By Tuesday morning, she had a high temperature and a cough. I had been around her all weekend, but didn’t know that she was at risk until I had already gone to my classes on Monday. By some incredible stroke of luck, both our third roommate and I tested negative. Yet, had either of us contracted the virus, how many people would our strain of the virus have infected before it reached someone who wasn’t being as careful?
Our case is paradigmatic to the challenge universities face. A small number of people acting irresponsibly entering an ecosystem of good-faith actors can bring the whole house down. If, at this point, the administration is under the illusion that there are no such people at Iowa State University, nothing I can say will change their minds. But I believe that the leadership of Iowa State is aware of what happened on 8:01 Day, the Saturday before the first day of classes, and what has continued to happen since.
Entering the fall semester, Iowa State leaders were optimistic that students would be responsible enough to put the wellbeing of the university ahead of their desire to socialize. I shared this optimism with them. After only two weeks of this experiment, it would be grossly negligent to continue forward with this state of mind.
For members of the administration, who believe in-person education continues to be necessary due to how much work they’ve done, let me say that two things can simultaneously be true:
• Iowa State did everything it could to set students up for success on campus.
• Now is the time to slam on the brakes.
I am by no means suggesting that Iowa State thus far has failed its students. The university has dedicated enormous amounts of time and resources to creating an environment with the potential to be sustainable in our current climate. I applaud the lengths through which they’ve gone to ensure the possibility of a meaningful semester.
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Despite the best efforts of the university, this potential will not be actualized. According to the New York Times, Ames is currently the fastest-accelerating COVID-19 hot spot in the country. In the country. Whether we’re days away from being mid-March New York or yesterday’s news is contingent on the action the university takes at this very moment.
I hear my roommate hacking and feel gratitude for my negative test. She’s 20. The city of Ames, which has opened its arms to the university, is not as young, not as likely to recover. The professors the university employs, the staff who clean its halls and wash its dishes are not as young; even many of those who do recover suffer long-term consequences.
What needs to be done
The Iowa State Community is on the brink of disaster. To prevent thousands of illnesses and dozens of deaths, Iowa State needs to take every possible action to minimize interactions between its students and from students to members of the Ames community.
Send students home
Residence halls are full of forced interactions between strangers. Many dorms do not have air conditioning, resulting in poorer air circulation. The Department of Residence is the only actor in the city of Ames who has the authority to reduce the strain on local health care by significantly reducing the city’s population. Similarly, the University should do everything it can to disengage Greek housing. Students who are sent home should be required to quarantine for two weeks.
Suspend in-person classes
Many students remain on campus because in-person classes are more informative than online versions. They are enrolled here because they care about their learning. The university cannot incentivize students to interact by keeping classes in-person.
Provide resources for the city
ISU has been the catalyst for Ames’ impending catastrophe. Although many university-managed resources such as the Iowa State Police Department and the Thielen Student Health Center have typically been used only for Iowa State purposes, those resources should be devoted to the community. Out of a sense of debt to the city and to those who the university has inadvertently endangered, those resources should be shared with members of the Ames area as much as possible.
I encourage the university to use great discretion in the rehousing process, as many students have a home environment that is less conducive to learning than COVID-19 may be. The Department of Residence has shown the ability to handle a significant outflux of students with nuance this spring, and I am confident that they can repeat their success.
In the situation we find ourselves in, there are no good options. The steps above would likely result in hundreds of students unenrolling from classes. This would hurt both the student losing an opportunity for education and the University unable to collect their tuition. Many students work jobs that the campus offers, and would be unemployed if students left.
Despite these challenges, there are larger issues at hand. The financial tumult of individuals and the university can be undone by time. The suffering and death ensured by a COVID-19 outbreak cannot be.
It was less than three weeks ago when I was on Central Campus, just East of the Campanile. I had volunteered to hand out masks because I knew that if I wanted the college I loved to succeed this fall, I needed to be a part of that success. For a time, President Wendy Wintersteen joined our tent and helped us out. While we chatted, we expressed a shared anticipation for the fall. Nerves for the worst and hopes for the best.
Unfortunately for both of us, our nerves were justified. It would be an enormous error to act like they weren’t.
Mason Zastrow is a student at Iowa State University.