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Opening Days leaders discuss changes made to this year's program

Updated: Sep 13, 2020

Nat Felten

Staff writer

2020 Opening Days leaders and coordinators. Photo by Benjamin Burton.

This year, Opening Days (OD) leaders took on the responsibility of introducing new bearcats to campus with new challenges in place. Like every other aspect of university life, changes had to be made to the typical OD experience for the good of everyone’s health.

Starting the Conversation, a play about college challenges formerly known as Reality Check, had to undergo some changes. One aspect that OD Leader Maddy Hooker wasn’t sure about given the pandemic was the inclusion of a party scene. “We didn’t want to promote that behavior so we said ‘Well, if you are doing that, here’s how you can stay six feet apart and not share drinks like things like that’ but we also didn’t want to normalize that behavior at all and don’t think that’s responsible.”

Starting the Conversation and a welcome speech by President Steven Thorsett were pre-recorded and watched by groups in separate classrooms to reduce the concentration of students. The Glow Up Dance, a yearly dance that involves relatively close contact with others and increased breathing, became Glow Up, which included activities such as glow-in-the-dark frisbee and arts and crafts.

Despite these important changes, OD leader Zoe Chittick and Hooker believe that there was some disconnect between the group leaders and the administration. “It felt like the four OD coordinators were under a lot of pressure from administration to enforce certain policies, without much further guidance or reimbursement for the responsibilities that they had to take on this year,” said Hooker.

To Hooker and Chittick, the only exception to this disconnect was the decision to cut the volleyball tournament that in years past all leaders and first years would participate in at the end of the week. “It wasn’t until a few days before then that we decided not to do the tournament,” said Chittick. The OD leaders were sent a poll regarding how safe they thought the tournament would be, to which the leaders overwhelmingly responded “‘no, it is not safe,’” said Chittick. The Opening Days Lead Team could not be reached for an interview.

Chittick and Hooker felt that there was an unwritten understanding that they, unpaid group leaders, were to shoulder the responsibility of their students’ health, and that it was being passed onto them rather than being the responsibility of the students themselves. Both thought the biggest hurdle was getting students to follow the rules in spite of their social starvation from quarantine. “It was easy to get people on board with the masks and the hand sanitizer, it was the social distancing that really was difficult,” said Chittick.

While Willamette is following the CDC’s recommendation of not testing students for COVID-19 immediately upon arriving at campus, some voices are still calling for mass testing. When asked if they would personally be more comfortable if their students had to do these mandatory tests, Chittick and Hooker thought it would be a bad idea. “I think it would be better to assume that everyone has coronavirus and follow the protocols thereby,” said Chittick. “If we tested everyone beforehand and everyone tested negative then enforcing protocols and policy would be way harder. Like, I can’t imagine being an OD leader if everyone had been tested beforehand, because you’d just get arguments and pushback about protocols from students who tested negative.”

Hooker, who otherwise agreed with the idea of people being tested agreed with this point. “People who tested negative would just assume they can do whatever they want,” she said.

The changes to events were made in an attempt to keep the experience of Opening Days for new students despite the pandemic, and whether or not the changes worked is up for debate. “I think one of the goals of OD is to keep students really busy and preoccupied to kind of distract from any homesickness and also introduce them to as much as possible, and COVID hindered that,” said Chittick. “This year students could only choose to go to one activity to sign up for initially. That really limited what people were able to participate in, and I think that kind of affected the OD spirit in a way.”

The social starvation that makes it hard for students to social distance, according to Chittick and Hooker, may prove to be what made the Opening Days experience good for students this year and may even prove to be an important motivator going forward. “My group expressed ‘We’re lucky to be here, we’ve been with our families in quarantine for six months and at this point we really don’t want school to shut down. We just want to be as careful as possible so we can continue to be here,’” said Hooker.

Chittick said, “I guess it was hard for the OD leaders because we have experience with ‘normal’ OD, but this is all they [first-years] know, and after months of quarantine and lockdown it’s pretty liberating to even have limited, socially distanced amounts of activities with other people.”

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