Watson: Stop threatening students, start solving problems

Zach Watson, Guest Contributor

I ride my bike to the Donald P. Jacobs Center every Monday morning for my COVID-19 test. Testing marks the beginning of my work week. I get tested, ride home to my apartment, make tea, and start on my schoolwork. 

This week was different. I was tested on Monday, Feb. 15, per usual. Three days later, I received an email stating that my test could not be completed due to shipping delays and that I should get retested on Friday. I did so. The next Monday, I received the same email yet again. 

Meanwhile, I had already gone in to do my first of now twice-weekly rapid antigen tests with a brand new app and a brand new testing process announced just a day earlier. This was the third testing service in the same number of months. The antigen test, which was promised to be fast, took me half an hour and required me to reset my password three times to access the app. Lines reached out to Sheridan Road and even to Lunt Hall that day.

Going on the 11th month of the pandemic, I feel like I have the right to expect that my university would have its COVID-19 testing protocols worked out. I expect Northwestern to have fallback plans, for the sake of the community’s health. Instead, I’ve had to navigate three different testing services, test processing errors and retesting on a moment’s notice because somewhere along the way my test was lost. 

From the perspective of an off-campus undergraduate, Northwestern’s handling of the curveballs of the pandemic has been dismal. Where to start? For one, Northwestern told first- and second-years over the summer that they were not subject to the on-campus housing requirement, as in years past. Dozens, likely hundreds, of underclassmen joined their third- and fourth-year classmates in Evanston apartments, optimistically hoping that they’d be back in classrooms at some point during the 2020-21 school year. 

Nine days before move-in, Northwestern pulled the rug out from under these students, telling them not to come. Not only were they not welcome, but these first- and second-years, many of whom had signed leases for Evanston residences over the summer, found out that they would have no access to COVID-19 testing in the fall. A ghost student body lived in Evanston for weeks, exiled to their apartments, before the administration relented and allowed them to be tested. Students planning to live in Greek houses were told at the same time that they’d be barred from their planned living space, giving hundreds more just a week before move-in to get their affairs in order.

The mismanagement has continued throughout the school year. During a time when students were protesting the existence of a privately funded University Police, administrators instructed students who witnessed COVID-19 policy violations to call the cops. Students have repeatedly been told by university officials that the best way to keep cases down is to rat on each other to police or administration, enforcing an already hostile environment of constant surveillance and mistrust. Administrators have shown up at students’ homes in Evanston to “check in” and “reiterate student behavioral expectations.” Multiple emails have been sent out during the fall and winter warning of consequences if cases arose, with the latest email from Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier threatening a “mid-term Wildcat Wellness period,” a euphemism for mandatory quarantine, if the positivity rate continues to rise. 

This is on the same day that lines to get tested stretched out to the road, and some students like myself had not received any test results for up to two weeks. While the blame is being placed on student gatherings, students themselves have expressed concerns of unsafe living environments on campus. University contact tracing operations have been a failure, and students themselves have resorted to passing emergency legislation through Associated Student Government to push the university to help keep students healthy.

To add insult to injury, University President Morton Shapiro proudly announced that Northwestern had a budget surplus of nearly $85 million, just a few months after laying off hundreds of service workers and offering them little to no support. Students Organizing for Labor Rights has raised tens of thousands of dollars, in light of the university’s failure, to support its workers during a nationwide pandemic. They did this despite the fact that in April, Northwestern refused more than $8 million in CARES Act funding, and the university’s cash on-hand grew by approximately $250 million, according to a Northwestern University Graduate Workers analysis.

It is one thing to be flexible in light of “unprecedented times,” a phrase I have grown to loathe. It is another to act with negligence and obstinance when multiple options to alleviate stress are placed on the table in front of you. It is a shame that students have been forced to pick up the slack where administration has failed. 

Zach Watson is a Medill junior. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.