Demand that Rice University prioritize safety

Demand that Rice University prioritize safety

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Jay Shisler started this petition to Rice University and

Return to Rice: An Open Letter to the Rice Community

In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, confusion was widespread. Rice administration was dealing with a rapidly developing crisis, and students and staff alike struggled with putting together comprehensive answers to pressing questions. After administration canceled classes the week of March 9, would students return to campus? How would online classes work? In these moments, as we said uncertain goodbyes to our friends, we were confused. As most of us returned to our homes, this confusion continued. Rice would cancel in-person classes that week. The US government would stumble in a way that has continued to plague us. We lacked leadership and a clear understanding of what was going on at the federal, state, and university levels. Little did we know that what we needed most, effective leaders, would continue to be absent for the remainder of the year.

In this open letter to the entire Rice community—students, families, administration, faculty, staff—I hope to demonstrate some of the issues with Rice’s plan to return students to campus this year, to show how Rice leaders and administration have failed us, to explain my own experiences living on campus during O-Week training and O-Week itself, and to call for action.

Leaders of Rice’s failure to uphold the Culture of Care

In Rice’s return plan, Dean Gorman emphasized the importance of the Culture of Care and the Culture of Care Agreement. The Culture of Care is vital to the culture of Rice University. The importance of it in a safe return to campus is intuitive. But upon further investigation, this is a thinly veiled attempt to shift responsibility to students for the mitigation of a pandemic that has ravaged our country, Texas, and Houston. It ignores the fundamental nature of college students—anyone who has interacted with us will know we will not uphold all the principles set out. Dean Gorman, who is rightfully proud of her extensive experience working with and for college students, should know this as well as anyone. But for the sake of argument, let us ignore this glaring error and presume the Culture of Care Agreement is a viable and potentially successful plan. If we as students were to violate it, we would be liable to face the consequences of our actions. This is because we would be making the Rice community less safe—something that we would seemingly deserve to be punished for. But shouldn’t leaders and administrators also be liable for making the Rice community less safe?

My Experiences during O-Week

In the last week and a half, I have seen the harsh realities of Rice’s failure. Before O-Week, I was concerned about the quality of food under the grab-and-go model that I knew was coming. I had no grasp of how bad the situation would be. Fortunately, I have no dietary restrictions. Even with this considered, I leave most meals still feeling hungry. The food served to us is pathetic in regards to options and quality. This sentiment is shared among my peers who are also fortunate enough to not have dietary restrictions—we are hungry not long after meals as we do not end up eating the options offered to us. We are fine, but not happy with the situation. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for students who are vegetarian, vegan, or have other dietary restrictions. The options for these students are truly minimal—to achieve the recommended 2,000 calories these students would be forced to go to extreme measures, such as eating 20 cookies a day. At one of our daily team debriefs, I learned students with these restrictions were skipping meals as they knew they would not eat anything if they went to the servery. These were new students. New students who are supposedly the focus of O-Week. “It’s all about the new students” is the single mantra that is drilled into the minds of everyone associated with O-Week. In 2020, this is apparently no longer the case. It is not about the new students. It is not about any students. The university, in its utter failure to meet students’ basic needs, has demonstrated this. It is not about the students. The notion that the administration wants us to uphold the spirit of the Culture of Care yet can’t even properly feed us is the ultimate failure of the Culture of Care. The university is demonstrating they don’t care about us. Shouldn’t they be held accountable too?

If this example of the administration failing to care for the community is not enough, I want to explain a more personal situation: a situation that demonstrates a more subtle failure of the university upholding the Culture of Care. On the morning of August 18th, I went to take a PCR test at an asymptomatic testing location. Upon arrival, I explained that my throat had been hurting, as it had been on and off for six months (Texas allergies). I was turned away from the testing location and instructed to call Rice Student Health to determine my next steps and fill out a health form. After talking to Student Health Services, I had a televisit with a doctor to determine my next steps.

The doctor, with my explanation that I had taken a PCR test on the 14th and tested negative along with experiencing consistent allergy symptoms, wanted to help me find a way to get tested as soon as possible. She determined the way to do this was to send me to a symptomatic testing location on campus. After my test, I talked to a nurse at Student Health Services again. She instructed me to enter into isolation until I had received a negative result. She would call Crisis Management and have meals delivered to me. I was upset with this but understood the reasoning behind it. Soon after she told me this, I received another call. Crisis Management would not be delivering my meals as they did not want to place me on an official list. Instead, a friend would carefully and discreetly deliver my meals. At this moment I began to realize that Rice did not have a plan in this type of situation: when a student was experiencing symptoms of COVID that were likely not caused by the virus, but it could not yet be ruled out. Did the Rice administration seriously not even anticipate this kind of situation arising? Did they not know their students have seasonal allergies? Do they not think their students will catch the common cold?

As I returned to my room and roommate, who happens to be the Chief Justice of Jones College, we called our College Magister. At this moment, our Magister was left to figure out how to deal with this situation. I was on “Medical Hold”—a new category at Rice that had been created that morning with my admission of a sore throat. At Jones, almost all residents use communal bathrooms, including my roommate and me. Our magister worked to figure out how to deal with this, along with the other male student we shared the restroom with. My roommate and I were instructed to move into one of the few open suites in Jones, where we could avoid a communal bathroom.

In the suite—our “flex space”—our basic needs were not met. There was no hand soap in our restroom. There were no paper towels. We lacked the ability to wash our hands, one of the most powerful tools we have to fight COVID. After calling our college leadership, we were brought bathroom cleaning supplies, but not soap or paper towels. Realizing we had to take matters into our own hands, we resorted to using my body wash to clean our hands. Although this was by no means a major inconvenience, it yet again demonstrated Rice’s failure to plan. As we settled into our rooms, we realized that the air conditioning was not properly working—in two of the bedrooms in the suite, it remained at almost 80 degrees while the A/C was set to 72. This was a minor inconvenience for us, but I worry that if a student experiencing fever were placed in this room, this A/C issue would be much more pressing.

The next morning my roommate received his test results from the previous day. My results, which I had been told would be ready within 24 hours, were nowhere to be found. After calling the nurse I had talked to the previous day several times I learned that I had also tested negative. We were free to return to O-Week as normal. As I write this letter days later, I still have not received an email with my test results—something that other students have also struggled with. It is clear that the system to inform us of our results is faulty.

I explain all of this to demonstrate Rice’s failure to plan for our return. My situation is one that should have been foreseen—of course students will report COVID-like symptoms that are likely not symptoms of the virus. Yet I alone was responsible for the creation of a new category: “Medical Hold.” I was the guinea pig in this Medical Hold experiment and I believe the experiment largely failed. Rice did not plan for this. This is a subtle failure of the Culture of Care. By not adequately planning for our return yet stressing they had, Rice misled students. Lying—and make no mistake, the claim to have a plan where no such plan exists is indeed a lie—about the safety and preparation of campus is another failure of the Culture of Care.

After experiencing these frustrations, I turned to those who I believed could advocate on my behalf, including members of my college leadership team and adult team. But in talking to these people, I learned that the Dean and administration were largely ignoring their recommendations and thoughts. The few people that could help me were often prevented from doing so by the deaf ear of administration. This leads me to another point: how Rice has thrust responsibility on student leaders while simultaneously ignoring their pleas for help.

The role of the Student Leadership and the A-Team

Over the summer, the residential colleges’ Chief Justices, Presidents, and O-Week Coordinators have worked overtime meeting with each other and the administration. In talking to them, it has been made clear to me that they feel ignored by administrators, yet are left to plan the logistics for their colleges’ return to campus without any help from the university or public health experts. O-Week Coordinators planned an Orientation Week during a global pandemic. They were responsible for making public health decisions. Students ages 19-22 were making public health decisions for the safety of the Rice community as a whole. Leaders of countries have failed to make proper decisions during the pandemic, but students ages 19-22 were making these decisions while often having their suggestions ignored by administrators. With the example of Will Rice College moving their O-Week online after deliberations by the Adult Team and the O-Week Coordinators comes yet another reminder: students, not public health experts, are responsible for public health decisions. In the Rice Thresher article describing the situation at Will Rice, the Rice administration made sure to comment that the decision to move online was made by Will Rice College, not Rice University—as if there were anyone in the administration who were paying enough attention to help make that call.

Call to Action

The entire rationale behind Rice returning to campus after being forced to leave last spring boils down to one extraordinarily simple claim: it’s different now, despite the much worse state of the pandemic, because “they have a plan.” I’m writing this letter because I think Rice community members deserve to know that they do not have a comprehensive plan.

The most important takeaway from this letter is not that I’ve discovered holes in Rice’s plan. It’s that I feel confident there are holes that are yet to be discovered. The absence of a system for Medical Holds like mine was fixed with my admission to the flex space at Jones, but I feel alarmed and scared that that system didn’t exist in the first place. Only a small percentage of Rice students have even arrived on campus. What other holes will we discover as more students move in? The answer is that no one knows, but I feel confident that they exist and I’m terrified to find out what they’ll be.

I am demanding that the Rice administration be held accountable for their failure to uphold the Culture of Care, the same Culture of Care that they promised we would face harsh punishments for violating. I am demanding that student leaders be granted the respect they deserve—they are doing a better job than the supposed “adults” of our university, state, and country. I am proposing that Rice immediately cancel in-person classes. The only students living on campus this semester should be those who absolutely need to, using a process similar or the same to the one used last spring. Those who do remain on campus need to be treated with the same care that is expected of them—that includes comprehensive and fully executed plans for food, mental and physical health, and COVID-19 safety. 

By Jay Shisler in collaboration with Harry Golen

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