In its innovative efforts to keep campus open for in-person learning in spite of COVID-19, Northeastern University’s campus has undergone a cultural transformation that reflects its coronavirus-inspired motto, “Protect the Pack.” Promotional banners and artwork line campus walkways, showcasing slogans and poster children for healthy, responsible masked students. Stickers and signs coat each building, inside and out, in red and white, specifying where to stand, which direction to walk, and which door to exit. Even the campus’s hidden gems of statues and Banksy-like murals now have colorful additions with ever so subtle reminders to mask up and stay 6 feet apart.
For the past month, we’ve seen college after college struggle to create a safe learning environment for their students and staff and constantly adapt their reopening plans. Others didn’t even risk the attempt, going online-only or almost entirely. Northeastern, so far, has been one of the more successful institutions, with relatively low positive test rates: only 55 cases detected in the first 116,000 tests. Boston College has had more than 100 coronavirus cases out of 28,000 tests.
Even so, many of us are wondering: Will Northeastern be able to keep campus open for the rest of the semester?
The university has spent more than $50 million on its reopening plan, but it greatly relies on student behavior for it to work.
Northeastern has already made headlines nationwide for suspending 11 freshmen for gathering in a room in the Westin, which is housing students in a program that traditionally entails a first-semester study abroad experience. As the news circulated around campus, most students I spoke to criticized the fact that the students were not going to be reimbursed for their $36,500 tuition, even though their social-distancing violation happened before the semester had begun. The school has since relented, and the students will only pay room and board costs. Nonetheless, many students told me that they supported the university’s willingness to hold these 11 accountable and that they were awakened to the university’s intolerance for breaking COVID-19 policies.
A majority of the $50 million for the reopening plan was invested in the university’s rapid testing program. All students must be tested three times per week, and the tests are analyzed at either a Northeastern lab in Burlington or at the Broad Institute in Cambridge. Although the school usually conducts more than 5,000 tests each day — and as many as nearly 7,000 — I never waited more than 15 minutes in line during my first week, and my first three test results each came in within 24 hours. The day after each test, I received an email notification to schedule my next one.
While the testing process has been efficient thus far, now may be a turning point, since classes have begun and more students are active on campus. The formidable Cabot Testing Center, formerly the school’s athletics center, is being tested itself. The wait times are gradually getting longer each day. Finding the end of the line is like watching a circus clown find the last of an infinite chain of handkerchiefs.
However united Northeastern might feel right now, we are living in anything but a bubble. Our main campus is open to the public and seamlessly woven into the city, especially with many upperclassmen living in Mission Hill and some freshmen now in the Westin Hotel in Copley Square. The large majority of Northeastern’s current coronavirus cases have come from students living off campus.
Northeastern has done most of the heavy lifting by implementing strict campus-wide safety protocols and testing schedules for all, and it is now up to the rest of us to see it through.
More students need to understand their individual responsibility to enforce these practices in their everyday lives, not just when Northeastern tells them to do so. Trailing lines outside dining halls and clusters of meet-ups on campus quads almost seem like flaws in the university’s social distancing guidelines, but mainly they’re a testament to students' disregard for public safety.
Waiting to enter a dining hall makes me nothing but anxious as the students both ahead and behind me are often too close for comfort.
One afternoon, I was in line for a dining hall and got stuck in the unfortunate position of holding open with my body one half of the double door into the building. Rather than using the other side of the double door, multiple residents of the building snuck up closely to skim past me — within inches of my face — as they stepped inside. It was an audacious invasion of personal space, and it would have been even without COVID-19.
As independent young adults, we may feel an air of confidence or invincibility, but neither is an excuse to risk another’s health.
The chaotic eviction back in March unraveled in a span of a week. With only two weeks under our belt, it is not yet time to celebrate.
Kelly Chan, a Northeastern sophomore, is editor of the Huntington News, the student newspaper.