Kuntzman: CWRU owes its students and staff rational and coherent COVID-19 policies

Caroline Kuntzman, Staff Writer

In November 2020, I was elected to a risk management position. I took the position knowing that if in-person programming resumed, I would have a big job on my hands. However, I felt confident that I would be able to manage risk effectively as long as I stayed up to date with the university, state and CDC guidelines. I discovered, especially during fall 2021, that Case Western Reserve University COVID-19 mitigation policies are a complex and, in some cases, illogical web of rules that are extremely difficult for risk managers to keep track of—forget trying to get others to follow them. 

Fall 2021 saw a much welcome return to in-person programming and a host of confusing COVID-19 restrictions. For example, when I met with a university official about my options for a program that required taking a group of 12 students off-campus, the official told me that we could either take three cars with four people each or one 15 passenger van with everyone in it. I found this approach to risk management baffling. It makes no sense to insist that students heavily limit the capacity of passengers in a typical car but also allow more people than normally allowed in a larger vehicle. If the university truly had concerns about having a significant number of people around each other in an enclosed space, why didn’t they truly implement a singular rule restricting the number of passengers per vehicle? 

Going into Thanksgiving break last semester, I was cautiously optimistic that the university would begin to formulate a less restrictive and more logical approach to managing COVID-19. The Omicron variant quickly dashed these hopes. While I appreciate that the university allowed the majority of in-person programming to resume after Jan. 24, the inconsistencies between the restrictions placed on student organizations and the policies implemented in other areas of student life are mind boggling.  

One area that immediately comes to mind is food. Recently CWRU placed heavy restrictions on eating at student events until Mar. 1. Given the efficacy of masking in preventing the spread of COVID-19, policies that eliminate the need to take off masks are understandable and reasonable measures to reduce on-campus COVID-19 cases. What I take issue with is CWRU’s selectiveness in its implementation of measures to reduce the risks associated with food. CWRU has implemented some policies to reduce the risks associated with dining services, such as allowing people to take their meals to go, asking students to have masks on when they are not actively eating or drinking and reducing the capacity of Leutner and Fribley Commons. However, these measures still leave considerable risk in dining spaces. There are no guidelines for limiting the number of students at one table or how long students should remain at tables. Common dining spaces such as the ground floor of Tinkham Veale University Center are likely even less safe given that they are open to members of the public, especially when these visitors are not subject to the vaccine and COVID-19 testing mandates that students are. If the university’s concern is genuinely about the risks associated with serving food to groups, CWRU needs to evaluate if its current measures—or lack thereof—are effective. 

Enforcement of these COVID-19 also differs at different levels of CWRU. From my experience as a risk manager, student organizations are held to very high standards for safety. We are expected to submit risk assessment plans for events such as those with over 50 participants, adhere to university guidelines and live in constant danger of programs being significantly modified or cancelled because of a possible change in policies. Furthermore, we are expected to routinely compromise our wishes for the good of the community. 

I have spent the start of the semester struggling with the fact that the pandemic obliterated undergraduate experience I worked for and wanted. While unfortunate, this is something that I am trying to learn to accept. What I cannot and never will accept is the unwillingness of university officials to hold themselves to the same standards as students. In October 2021, I filed a COVID-19 Care Report because I saw photos circulating online of a high-profile university official not following COVID-19 policies. The response I received embodies the problem with CWRU’s risk management policies. I was told the violation in question was approved, with the email implying that it was considered fine because it was at an important and historical university event. 

I acknowledge there are situations where COVID-19 policies should be adjusted because they are impractical for the situation or because there are other risks that CWRU needs to weigh. I also acknowledge that it may, at times, be reasonable to have somewhat different measures for students than faculty and staff because most of us live in communal housing, which puts us at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. What I reject is the notion that exemptions should be made because an event is ‘important’ or ‘historic.’ This sends the message that students are irrelevant comparatively. The administration expects students to make sacrifice after sacrifice for CWRU’s well-being in exchange for a lower quality college experience and education. Meanwhile, our officials apparently can’t make the sacrifice of following their own COVID-19 policies. CWRU officials need to lead by example because they are hurting the legitimacy of their policies if they don’t follow them themselves. 

Students and the choices we make play a vital role in keeping campus safe. That being said, the university’s approach to COVID-19 disproportionately burdens students and student organizations with keeping the community safe. Students have a right to consistent and appropriate policies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 as well as equitable enforcement of said policies. It’s time for the CWRU to start honoring these rights.