Excited energy fills the streets of Oakland as packs of college students dressed in tube tops and polos roam the streets in search of parties. But as students drink and mingle, they are faced with an urgent question — is getting shmacked worth getting sick and further spreading COVID-19?
Eric Macadangdang, the president of Student Government Board, said students need to seriously consider the choice of whether or not to go out and party.
“If college students can’t be aware that having a large party in the age of a pandemic is probably not the safest thing to do, then they should probably reassess whether they should even be in college in my opinion,” he said.
Before almost entirely online classes started Wednesday, large social gatherings among students gained the attention of concerned students, parents, community members and Pitt administrators. Many parties were held last weekend throughout Oakland without masks or proper physical distancing, and Pitt temporarily suspended five Greek life organizations for alleged conduct violations. With Pitt’s number of active COVID-19 cases at 15 as of Monday, that number could increase if students don’t take precautions to protect themselves and others.
Pitt students, parents, employees and community members have the ability to report COVID-related concerns to the University’s Office of Compliance, Investigation and Ethics. After the OCIE reviews the report, the case is passed along to the responsible department — such as Student Affairs or Pitt Public Safety — for further action. As of Thursday, the OCIE has received about 144 reports.
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher addressed concerns about students not following guidelines during a Tuesday address to new students. He reminded students of the social contract they made and the serious commitment they have to keeping each other safe.
“If this isn’t for you and you can’t take on this responsibility, then please go home. Your actions will only be endangering others, and you are not welcome on our campus,” Gallagher said. “You can still take Pitt classes remotely, and we will refund your unused room and board. No judgments. If you stay, and then act irresponsibly, there will be consequences.”
Although Pitt has implemented serious consequences for breaking health and safety guidelines, some say that the University is too quick to point to students for rising case numbers. Macadangdang said both students and the University must be held accountable for their decisions.
“Accountability should also go towards the people who invite students and their [students’] decisions back to campus. It is two-fold,” Macadangdang said. “Yes, students make poor decisions and sometimes they need to be made clear what the consequences of those really bad decisions are. But also, the University must be cognizant of what their decisions have been that brought students back on campus.”
Eamon Sheehan, a first-year Masters of Education student, agreed with Macadangdang that the University must be held partially responsible for any potential outbreaks in Oakland.
“I think at least some of that blame needs to fall on the University,” Sheehan said. “If you bring in these students from all over the world, residents in the Hill District didn’t ask for that, residents in Squirrel Hill didn’t even ask for that.”
Kenyon Bonner, the vice provost and dean of students, reminded students of the severe actions the University is committed to taking to protect the well-being of the Pitt community in a Wednesday email. The email stated that the various repercussions of holding and attending large social gatherings without a mask or proper distancing included academic suspension, housing suspension and being placed on Persona Non Grata which would ban access to campus.
Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina made the decision earlier this week to move from in-person to entirely virtual classes after rising numbers of students tested positive for COVID-19. Students are suspected to have contracted the virus after attending parties without masks or physical distancing.
University spokesperson Kevin Zwick said that Pitt still stands by its decision to allow students to return to campus, and the responsibility falls on the Pitt community to keep each other safe.
“It is on each of us to hold ourselves and each other accountable in keeping our community as healthy as possible,” Zwick said.
Macadangdang said he is in favor of allowing students to return to campus while taking virtual classes. But he said with that freedom, students need to abide by health and safety guidelines.
“Within a pandemic, one bad apple could ruin the whole load. One poor decision from one student could cause an outbreak,” Macadangdang said. “I’m very hopeful that we can apply some positive reinforcement and peer pressure towards our friends and our classmates to make the right decisions. But we cannot rely solely on this positive reinforcement. Because quite literally, it’s life and death.”
Alexa Pierce, a first-year psychology major, said she is also frustrated with her peers.
“It makes me upset honestly, because a lot of us wanted to come here to learn — that’s our primary goal,” Pierce said. “In these circumstances, you’d think we’d be more cautious and cognizant of the things that are going on with COVID, but it doesn’t seem that way.”
To Sheehan, students who play “stupid games” win “stupid prizes”, except the prize is more serious than some are taking it.
“The prize is you risk your elderly neighbors and your elderly family members dying alone in the hospital,” Sheehan said. “That’s really where we’re at, and I don’t think people get that, and I don’t think people are taking it seriously.”
But the COVID-19 outbreak doesn’t put only the elderly at risk. Madeleine Biache, a healthy senior political science major, caught COVID-19 in March. Five months after initially catching the disease, she said she is still feeling its effects due to permanent damage in her lungs and gave her peers a dire warning.
“Go home. Put a mask on. Wash your hands. Stop seeing people,” Biache said. “You’re really, really going to regret having gone to wherever you went when you caught COVID, because wherever it was, it wasn’t worth it.”