Staff editorial: The University’s Thanksgiving policy flip-flop flopped

This semester was bound to be incredibly tough no matter what. With a pandemic upending nearly every aspect of the college experience, it has long been clear that there were few ways to avoid what is surely one of the hardest falls some of us will ever encounter. With that, Washington University should not be making our lives any more difficult or stressful.

However, over the last few weeks, they’ve done just that. The administration’s flip-flop on the Thanksgiving policy has left students with little clue how to handle the weeks ahead. Yet again, the University’s communication with us has been lacking transparency and timeliness, leaving us in the dark when we need to be anywhere else.

At first, the University said that any students who went home for Thanksgiving would not be able to return to campus after the holiday. That policy made sense; it was simple and straightforward. Then, on September 29, Wash. U. amended the policy to “strongly recommending” that students who traveled over the break not return to campus afterward. On a national level, cases were declining at the time, but it was still too early to determine that it would be okay to allow students to travel home for Thanksgiving. Although the University’s desire to allow students as normal a Thanksgiving as possible was admirable, given the unpredictability of the virus, it would have been best to err on the side of caution and maintain the original policy.

Within a month, the situation had deteriorated. On October 28, Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rob Wild warned in an email that “Should conditions continue to worsen nationally or locally, the University may decide that students who choose to travel outside of St. Louis will not be able to return to campus.” By the next week, an email from Chancellor Andrew Martin with the ominous subject line “Worsening conditions in the St. Louis region” graced our inboxes, with yet more vague words of caution. And then, last Thursday, the hammer came down: anyone who went beyond 60 miles of the St. Louis region would not be allowed back on campus after Thanksgiving.

Did Martin’s email, which arrived just two weeks before Thanksgiving, provide a rationale for the 60-mile radius? No. Was there an explanation for how students partying with dozens of people 59 miles away was any different from students seeing two family members 61 miles from St. Louis? No.

The lack of clarity about the 60-mile radius guideline was annoying, surely, but that problem was not the key issue with the University’s handling of Thanksgiving. Instead, the situation with the 60-mile radius rule is simply emblematic of what has plagued Wash. U.’s planning throughout the last few months. For too long, the University has thrust plan after changing plan upon us without rationale for its reasoning behind the changes, often sewing chaos and putting students—especially low-income students and those without a home to which they can safely return—in situations where there are few if any good potential outcomes.

It happened with the rollout of the fall plan, when the University waited until just six weeks before the start of the semester to tell hundreds of students that they would be without housing for the fall, leaving them at the mercy of St. Louis landlords or forcing them to stay home.

It has happened again this semester with the COVID-19 alert system, as the University has raised and lowered levels without providing students specific guidelines for understanding why colors change and what they mean. The administration has urged caution at the same time as they chose to approve an indoor event with donors and catered alcohol.

At this point in the pandemic, criticism was unavoidable no matter what Wash. U. decided to do about Thanksgiving. Few people envy university administrators these days, and Washington University’s leaders are certainly not alone. We recognize that, just as students continue to struggle through this unprecedented fall, University leadership is in a tough spot of their own, with fiscal constraints, a constantly shifting public health crisis and constant scrutiny of decisions large and small.

But the University should have learned by now that there are things it can do to make our lives less hellish in this time of extended crisis, from providing clear and detailed explanations for its choices to giving us transparent and timely outlooks for the future, as grim as they may be. At a time when little is certain beyond the idea that the future is uncertain, the University should do everything in its power to provide students and the community with at least a modicum of stability, especially when it comes to big decisions and announcements like those surrounding Thanksgiving.

When policies change, students deserve to know why. The video from Dr. Steven Lawrence explaining the October upgrade to orange was a great example of what we’re looking for. We need more of that. Give us the data and the rationales for decisions and tell us what we can expect from the future.

Chances are that there will still be pushback. That’s just where we’re at right now. But at least students will have a full sense of the situation and will have the information they need to make the best decisions that they can.

Editor’s note: This staff editorial was written Monday, Nov. 16 before WU’s announcement regarding the spring 2021 semester. If you have opinions on the proposed plan please write to [email protected]

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