The scariest thing this Halloween? NDSU’s failure to protect its community

John Swanson | Photo Courtesy
NDSU’s handling of the pandemic raises the question, who is the real monster this Halloween?

North Dakota cases soar, Bresciani tells us, “[W]e should be proud”

As the holiday celebrating the mysterious and scary looms near, is it ghosts or carved vegetables that will cast the darkest shadow on the community? I would argue that, in spite of how terrifying an evening out trick-or-treating in Fargo’s October weather sounds, day-to-day life is far scarier than any holiday could churn up. 

At the beginning of this semester, I wrote a piece on how when the pandemic inevitably hit North Dakota, the NDSU community would be sent home like in the spring of this year. At the time, it never would have occurred to me that when the worst did happen, like say, having the most per capita cases in the world, we would still be here. 

It is quite clear at this point there is little more that could happen to get NDSU to shut down for the semester, and if it will, it will only be after students cannot receive refunds on housing. 

Despite the fact that most students ignore them, President Dean Bresciani’s weekly campus updates have become, for some, a little interlude to reflect on how consistently positive the university administration remains in spite of everything, and this past Friday’s update was no exception. 

As Bresciani said, “[T]here was worry that COVID-19 would overwhelm the campus, and we’d be forced to go remote classes only. However, because we all worked collectively towards the goal of mitigating the virus, we’ve managed to avoid that result.” According to the Financial Times Database, if North Dakota was its own nation, we would have the highest per capita coronavirus case count over any other nation in the world, but sure, why not pat ourselves on the back?

Bresciani did take the time to address national backlash against North Dakota, but mentioned how “local efforts are beginning to take shape.” It’s true, Mayor Tim Mahoney did put in place a non-punitive mask mandate. Which I’m sure had nothing to do with the worldwide attention given to Fargo City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn’s comments on mask-wearing or the photo that circulated of Mahoney grocery shopping with his mask hanging off his face. 

(On the bright side, at least we know that Peter Frampton knows Fargo exists. That’s cool, right?)

According to Financial Times, 422 individuals have died in North Dakota in October alone, with 83 in Cass County this year. These people were our community members, our neighbors and any self-congratulation or inadequate mask mandate feels like much too little, much too late. 

The New York Times reported that in North Dakota this week there has been an average of 801 cases per day, which is a 45 percent increase from the average two weeks ago. We are not on the other side of this, with winter coming and more people staying inside, we have likely not seen the worst of what is to come. Making promises to stay on campus now seems irresponsible. 

Individuals within the NDSU community who are disabled or immunocompromised have been trying to advocate for their safety since the beginning, to little avail. While many students made the choice to take classes from home, there is a sizable group of immunocompromised students who decided to live in on-campus housing, trusting the university would keep them safe.

This has not been the experience of many, including myself. Within the halls, other students and university staff alike fail to wear their masks. I have seen pictures of Resident Assistants walking the halls with masks below their noses. In my own time in campus housing this year, I saw dozens of students leaving their apartments without masks on and have been stuck in elevators with staff members without masks.

To some, this may not sound like a very big deal, but as other immunocompromised individuals can attest, these experiences are terrifying and can be life-threatening. One student, a sophomore on campus, told me how she is scared to leave her room, “What am I supposed to do? The hallways are four feet wide and the RA does nothing. If I want to leave, there goes a couple thousand [dollars].”

I understand this fear and frustration, it was the reason I too decided to leave campus housing. However, like the other student can verify, choosing not to live on campus means serious financial sacrifice, a consequence some students can’t afford. When I argued that campus housing was not providing a safe or conducive learning environment to me as an immunocompromised and disabled student, I was told, “It is impossible to ensure 100% compliance with the face covering guidelines.”

Sure, few landlords or property owners can control the actions of all their tenants. However, if someone above me had flooded my apartment, the landlord would not say to me, “It is impossible to ensure 100% that your upstairs neighbors will not leave their water running.” They would recognize the living space is inhospitable. 

From a practical standpoint, NDSU runs into trouble providing refunds due to the pandemic, but they also set the precedent in the future that they are not responsible for protecting the needs of certain segments of their student populations within the halls, be it, disabled students, students with mental health concerns or any other group of marginalized individuals. 

Even the students who work for and support Residence Life on campus are put in an unfair position. Resident Assistants this year were asked to work extra hours in North Weible, where COVID positive students are housed, for the hefty price of $10 a day. Students, who are not health care workers, were tasked with putting their well-being at risk for the cost of a bottle of decent shampoo. NDSU sure does know how to get a bang for its buck. 

It’s easy to see how this placing of responsibility on students resonates throughout the entire university. In Bresciani’s email this past Friday, he related a familiar sentiment, “[W]e need to recommit ourselves to abiding by all the guidelines (social distance, masks, hand washing, testing, etc.).” At every interval, students have been reminded that they are the ones who are responsible for keeping the community safe.

Students are tasked with handling the new and often draining format that is online schooling, keeping ourselves and our close friends safe, but also with being the enforcers of public safety, keeping other students accountable when they defy guidelines. How is it that students can be expected to be diligent and responsible in their handling of the pandemic when their university hasn’t been?

As a student who has tried to do everything right, who hasn’t gone out and has kept their circle incredibly small, I still struggle to put blame on my classmates who are trying to make the most out of their thousands-of-dollars-worth online education. 

Of course, you want everyone to be responsible, but when you’re looking at an 18-year-old in their first year of freedom versus an established institution filled with professional educators and administrators, the burden of the blame should probably rest more heavily on the latter. 

I relayed the sentiment in August, and it is abundantly clear now, students are nothing more than financial assets to the university. This is an institution, but it is also a business, this is how the university is able to run and stay open. However, we are also human beings living during a monumental moment in history and we’re being treated by our institution like we don’t matter.

As one faculty member disclosed, the main reason, as far as they can tell, for the university remaining open for the rest of the semester is so that NDSU does not, “have to return dorm fees.” The university has weighed the monetary benefits of its residence halls against the inherent value of its community members, and people just don’t seem to stack up in this case. 

Bresciani’s email told us that there was a 6.8% positivity rate this past week, or roughly 102 positive cases of those in the community tested. Undoubtedly, there are more positive cases that are unknown and will remain that way. That’s hundreds of people with the virus and hundreds spreading the virus. This isn’t the time for a victory lap or for making promises of not going home, this is the time to consider how we can do better.

With Halloween this weekend, we can expect another campus update from Bresciani, with likely requests to be diligent and stay safe this weekend, which will be white noise to the many individuals with plans already. When the enforcement is lacking, the consequences to the individual seemingly remain small and the biggest effort made by the university is a weekly email reiterating the same points, students will do whatever they please this Halloween. 

The university and community alike have always known what the right decision should be, regardless if people thought it was an enjoyable or financially viable decision. As a student, having everyone sent home was never going to be the easiest, most convenient, or honestly, fun outcome. But as someone who has been living the harder, inconvenient, and I’ll admit, not terribly fun reality that is remaining safe during this pandemic, I know such decisions are ultimately worth it in the end. 

Before considering the numbers or holiday plans, we should always place the highest values on others, on our community and on public safety. NDSU has failed many of its students and its community members in this respect.

Bresciani said, “Let’s do everything we can to help ensure that we can finish the semester the same way we started.” The semester began with ill-planning and choices which would lead to unpredictable outcomes, let’s do everything we can to ensure the safety of our students by finishing the semester differently. 

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