Pointing Fingers: The COVID-19 Blame Game

By Siobhán Mitchell

On August 24th, President Weinberg sent a strong message to students about the consequences of violating the Community Care Agreement. Speaking of those who were caught violating the commitment he stated, “We have started to send those students home and will continue to do so until we only have students on campus who are 100% committed to the community guidelines 100% of the time.” Savage. Clearly, students breaking community guidelines is taken seriously by the administration, but the blame game is not simple when it comes to COVID-19, and the morality surrounding the regulation of undergraduate behavior is ambiguous.

Denison is one of many schools pointing fingers at individual behavior as the super spreader of COVID-19. OWU students and faculty were asked to commit to a similar agreement, pledging to wear face masks, comply with testing protocols, and avoid groups over 50. Wittenberg’s community pledge included taking “responsibility to keep the Wittenberg community safe.” Finally, Kenyon’s Student Conduct Addendum looks almost as if it was copied and pasted from Denison’s regarding mandatory daily health assessments and flu vaccines.

Thus far, we and our rival schools have remained relatively under control when it comes to viral spread, but students have gotten sick and who’s at fault is a difficult question to answer. Yes, college students are adults, but we are also young and desperate for socialization. This leaves a difficult choice between the need to engage with peers and the obligation to reduce the spread of the virus.

UNC Chapel Hill made breaking news when the university changed its fall semester to solely online classes and asked undergraduate students to leave their dorms and make travel plans to return home. Many feared it was the first of many universities that would send students home. It also served as possible evidence that college students couldn’t be trusted to manage a global pandemic. The dean of UNC’s public health school was quick to blame students, citing “off-campus behavior of students” for why the fall semester plan failed. But, this can also be seen as a form of deflecting blame off the responsibility of the institution to keep students safe. If the university was not adequately prepared to manage viral transmission, students should not have been brought back in the first place.

Denison’s own community guidelines emphasize personal responsibility, asking students to “commit to doing your part.” President Weinberg credits Denison’s impressive campus health to the “collective commitment to community behaviors,” implying that Denison’s students’ moral dedication to the rules allow for continued stay on campus.

There is an obvious tension over the institution’s role in keeping campus safe versus the student responsibility. The debate continues surrounding the role of students’ responsibility to behave well in contrast with the university’s role in creating infrastructure to manage the inevitable positive cases. For one, institutional testing is being provided. Although the frequency of testing is still up for debate, the university excels at providing quarantine spaces.

In regards to managing young adult behavior, most are familiar with the “abstinence only” approach applied to sex, drugs, and alcohol, and many recieved it in high school. If you didn’t, it can basically be summed up by the Mean Girls quote “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!” On the contrary a risk reduction approach can be summarized by the following line in the movie: “Ok, now everybody take some rubbers.”

If abstinence only doesn’t work for sex education or substance use, it seems like a safe bet that it wouldn’t work for eliminating social interaction to avoid COVID-19. Telling people to abstain from bars, close contact, and unmasked human interaction wouldn’t appear to be a sustainable option. That doesn’t mean college life should resort back to normalcy with sweaty parties and packed classrooms, but an elimination of all social interaction misses the opportunity to educate students about safer means for socializing and can stigmatize behaviors that fall outside the ideal.

On this note, Denison is no stranger to public shaming. Earlier in the semester, at least 2 Instagram accounts were created with the intention to expose students for breaking community guidelines. The posts, taken by fellow student bystanders, depicted students who were blatantly ignoring mask protocol. Eventually the accounts were taken down (for unknown reasons), but they did make one thing very clear: some students feel a responsibility to hold their peers accountable. It remains unclear if these accounts sparked substantial change in student behavior or if public shaming simply drove the behavior underground and away from the camera lens.

The photos, some worse than others, showed elements of risk reduction. Students were pictured outside, with masks on or nearby, and sometimes following social distancing requirements. Understandably, this is not ideal, but if students are going to socialize, the CDC acknowledges outdoor gatherings are safer than indoor. Additionally, in public spaces, Campus Safety is able to remind students to distance and enforce mask protocols.

For these reasons, warm weather is essential to reducing the risk of student behaviors but this approach will soon face a challenge because we know one thing about the future for certain: winter is coming.

Siobhán Mitchell is a senior Spanish major on the premedical track, yet taking a political science independent study. By those standards, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she can’t decide what to eat for dinner.

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