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Alumni critical of WU's reopening plan

Nat Felten

Staff writer

It is not a question if there will be an outbreak of COVID-19 at Willamette, but when, according to Willamette alum Rebecca Alexander. “There will be an outbreak, 100 percent,” Alexander said in an interview. She is one of many alumni who are criticizing the university’s reopening—484 people, composed of mostly Willamette alumni and a handful of current students, have signed an open letter to President Thorsett and the Board of Trustees demanding all classes go virtual. These critics voice their concerns out of love for Willamette and its principles of community and responsibility, which they believe the administration is betraying, according to the open letter.

Alexander, class of ‘10 and winner of the Young Alumni Leadership Award, signed the open letter and wrote an article published on asking President Thorsett to delay reopening, an article that has been republished on the Collegian’s website. Alexander admitted that she is not an expert on the transmission of COVID-19, but she pointed out that neither is anyone in the administration, “We know relatively little about this disease.” She believes that due to the slow-moving processes that experts gather accurate information, experts will not be able to say anything definitive about safe college reopening strategies until colleges have already been open for weeks.

Alexander also raised concerns about issues not included in her article or in the letter. She believes that safety measures give students a false sense of security. “Social distancing is really important to do in conjunction with wearing a mask, and in a college environment that’s unrealistic,” she said. “Not only are you living with other students already—which I believe will be even more of a ground-zero than classrooms—but you’re talking about students who have been deprived of socialization for six months, and complacency is normal.”

Alexander pointed to two widespread outbreaks on the college campuses of Notre Dame and University of North Carolina. Both these universities had safety protocols and methods of testing for the virus, but outbreaks occurred because a small subset of the students acted in what many people consider to be typical college student fashion: by making mistakes with their friends.“We do not look at a situation that looks like fun and say, ‘In two weeks I might pay for that.’ That is not human nature,” Alexander said. “People who broke the community guidelines will not be devoid of responsibility,” she clarified, but added that putting the responsibility of preventing an outbreak on each individual student is unfair when “recklessness is inevitable.”

Willamette has protocols to sanitize campus and keep students distanced, and the Coronavirus Taskforce has weekly meetings to determine the best way to keep the university functioning and the people safe. To Alexander, these rules are primarily a way to comfort students and parents when the real danger lies in having people on campus at all. “Willamette is not a closed campus,” Alexander said. “It is closed to visitors, but it is in no way closed. Faculty and students and staff, significant portions of them live off campus. They go to grocery stores and restaurants and doctor’s offices, and then come back to campus!”

The situation frustrates Alexander and many others, who see Willamette’s reopening as focusing on giving students a meagre taste of the Willamette social experience that existed in the past, rather than safely delivering the Willamette academic experience. To her, students should only have to worry about their grades, not their health. Alexander said: “It’s a numbers game, and the numbers are not on our side.”

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