This weekend, the University community saw the addition of 29 new, positive COVID-19 cases to the school’s coronavirus dashboard. Many students, faculty and members of the community were alarmed by this spike, as it was the greatest increase seen in a single weekend since students returned back to classes on Aug. 17.
Nick Tumuolo, Assistant Dean of Students, sent an email to members of the University’s Student First Committee early Saturday afternoon, raising concerns of the uptick.
“If you have not yet seen today's COVID-19 Campus Dashboard, there are 11 new positive cases reported this morning, and we are using approximately 30% of our isolation and quarantine space,” Tumolo wrote in his email. “While these current numbers are still manageable, this increase calls for all of us to double-down on our efforts to stop further spread. As student leaders, we need you to reach out to your peers, organizations, and social networks to bring today's dashboard to their attention, and urge everyone to use sensible measures and to put Community First, tonight and ongoing. We have an opportunity right now to ensure we are not on a trajectory that will become problematic.”
Student leaders on the committee were not the only people members of the administration spoke to. A Zoom call took place on Saturday afternoon with Assistant Dean Tumolo, Associate Vice President for Student Life Kathleen Byrnes and Director of Presidential Initiatives and Events Christine Quisenberry. All members of the Panhellenic Council executive board, Interfraternity Council executive board and respective members from each NPC and IFC chapter on campus were asked to join the call. Nearly 80 students joined the call.
Junior Mariana Marquez, Vice President of Standards for the chapter of Kappa Delta, attended this Zoom meeting. She explained that members of the administration were asking those on the call to use their respective influence within the Greek Life community to correct practices that may not be safe or within the clearly defined rules by the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life. According to Marquez, those leading the call specifically mentioned fraternity rush and sorority member involvement in these events as possibly contributing to the rise in cases.
On the call, Tumolo mentioned how other schools, like The University of Virginia, are starting to implement stricter protocols for students, such as curfews and restrictions on all in-person gatherings. While the University has yet to enforce stricter guidelines, beyond those outside of the CARITAS Commitment, if cases continue to rise, students on campus could see greater enforcement of rules to protect the health and safety of the greater community.
“We specifically wanted to have conversations with the FSL community, given the amount of students that are involved in that community and given that FSL are social organizations,” Tumolo said in an interview with The Villanovan. “We wanted to ensure that students are doing everything in their power to make sure their community members weren't putting anyone at greater risk that night.”
Tumolo continued to explain the specific focus on Greek Life, although there has been no data, since all testing data is confidential, clearly linking rising cases to fraternity and sorority events.
“Anecdotally, we were hearing the past two weekends or so that there was some more activity in terms of off-campus parties, and we know that fraternity recruitment was taking place at the same time, which lends itself to be more of a social event,” Tumolo said.
In a message obtained by The Villanovan, sent from Sarah Hernandez, Assistant Director in the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, to the presidents of the University’s eight Panhellenic chapters, chapter members were additionally made aware of rising cases before Tumolo contacted them.
“There was a substantial increase in cases this morning and based on the students who tested positive, we see a strong correlation between FSL affiliate students and positive cases,” Hernandez wrote in her text. “I don’t think it's a coincidence that IFC just wrapped up their recruitment process and we saw a spike in cases.”
For fraternities on campus, informal recruitment opened on Sept. 1, and bids were allowed to be given out beginning on Sept. 21. While each event for fraternity rush was supposed to be completely virtual, The Villanovan has been made aware of at least two fraternities who hosted in-person rush events.
“We thought it was a timely opportunity to talk to all student leaders in the Greek Life community and empower them to use their leadership and officer positions in their chapters to get their members on board,” Tumolo said.
Marquez appreciated how quickly administrators connected with students on this topic.
“I’m glad the school got in touch with leadership within Greek Life, remaining committed to staying healthy and on campus this semester,” Marquez said. “As a member of KD’s council, I am very happy with how our chapter and other chapters have handled the new normal and hope that everyone in and outside of Greek Life is reminded to not let up on our efforts to stop the spread.”
Tumolo emphasized that conversations were held with most student organizations on campus.
“We saw the numbers that occured Friday and Saturday, and we wanted to reach out to as many students as possible to make sure that everyone was aware of the dashboard,” he said. “Given those numbers, we wanted to double down, since it was the weekend, to make sure that people were keeping it chill and lowkey.”
Having seen numbers rise on Saturday morning with one more night of the weekend left, Tumolo, Byrnes and Quisenberry saw the timely opportunity to reach out to as many people as possible within the community.
“We emailed many staff members on campus who oversee other student groups, like Athletics, Music Activities, Student Involvement and Campus Ministry with similar messaging,” Tumolo added.
Although conversations were had with various organizations, University administration does not receive the name of any student who tests positive for COVID-19.
“The contact tracing team is confidential,” Tumolo said. “They do not report out who is testing positive or who is close contacts. We don't have data saying this is from all one group or one event. I don't think that's the case anyway. I think the numbers that we saw are not all linked to one group or one event, but I don't have data from that. I am just using common sense. I see all the reports from different incidents that come in.”
Many factors could be contributing to the rise in cases the University community is experiencing. Students have been traveling home on the weekends or to the Jersey Shore for weekend get-aways, and while Family Weekend was officially cancelled this year, many parents returned this weekend or weekends prior to see their children.
“I think it's a combination of three things: a false sense of security across the board since we had such low numbers for a long period of time, complacency and fatigue and then the third piece is there has been an uptick in social activity, especially off campus,” Tumolo said when speaking about the contributing factors to more cases. “When you link those three things together, it makes sense our numbers rose this weekend. That's me using my educated common sense.”
Tumolo, Byrnes and Quisenberry saw this moment as the right time to intervene. Administrators are making informed assumptions about student activity on and off campus and using this time to have conversations with students and faculty sooner rather than later.
“It’s time to recommit to the CARITAS Commitment,” Tumolo said.
Students are currently taking midterms, marking the halfway point of the academic semester.
“When is a better time to recommit than at the halfway point?” Tumolo asked. “I am very confident that this will create an opportunity where everyone gets on point with recommitment. It's a healthy reality check.”
With one final message, he stressed basic CDC and University guidelines.
“When people ask what we should do, what we should do is what we are always supposed to do: distancing, masks, hygiene,” Tumolo said.