Haven't You Heard?: Furman Can and Should Reevaluate its COVID-19 Policies
Given students' unexpected success this fall, Furman should repurpose the Paladin Promise this spring.
In 2018, the Furman men’s basketball team opened the season with 12 consecutive wins, including a victory on the road against the defending national champion, Villanova. Soon, Furman plastered a new slogan on all of their promotional gear: “Haven’t you heard?”
The rhetorical question had a clear message. Simply put, it conveyed that Furman was elite, underrated and overlooked. It prompted our community and the country to take notice of the basketball team’s success and give them the admiration and respect that they deserved.
Today, I feel that the same slogan applies to Furman’s performance against the pandemic. With the exception of an early misstep at the Kappa Alpha fraternity house, we are essentially undefeated when it comes to our record on COVID-19.
The numbers back that up. Furman’s own COVID-19 Dashboard indicates that, despite thousands of tests being administered, campus has only seen 80 positive student cases since Aug. 12.
To be fair, at the beginning of the semester it was much more reasonable to have doubts about the status of COVID-19 at Furman. Having initially elected to only test symptomatic students, it was plausible, even likely, that there was a significant number of undetected COVID-19 cases on campus.
The off-campus party at the former Kappa Alpha fraternity house over the weekend of Aug. 22 led to a serious outbreak on campus and forced the administration to seriously consider the possibility of an uncontrolled spread within the student body. At the same time, Furman was preparing for the return of second- and third-year students, which would nearly double the population density on campus.
Faced with this dilemma, the administration made the right decision and elected to test all students on campus at the time (this fall testing has proven to be a key factor for colleges that have been successful in fighting off COVID-19). Remarkably, however, of the 1,254 tests that the University administered, only three came back positive for a positivity rate of less than 0.5%.
Since then, Furman has adopted a rigorous testing regimen that randomly tests approximately 20% of the student body every Tuesday and Friday. Testing began on Tuesday, Sept. 29, and with each subsequent week Furman’s already low positivity rate has continued to fall.
In short, after an initial stumble, the administration course-corrected by implementing a serious testing regime.
Although it is certainly important, testing alone does not guarantee success in fighting COVID-19 on college campuses, but rather simply reveals the reality within the student body and allows administrators to make more informed decisions.
In May, the World Health Organization recommended that percent positive rate remain below 5% for at least two weeks before governments consider reopening. As of today, Furman has had a percent positive rate significantly lower than 5% for four consecutive weeks. Most recently, between Oct. 19 and Oct. 25, Furman administered tests to 433 students and only one came back positive.
In short, if we follow the science, it is clear that Furman currently has COVID-19 under control to the extent that it can and should consider loosening restrictions.
But what does that mean? Why does it matter?
It means that a lot of people, myself included, were wrong—badly wrong—about Furman students’ ability to adjust their behavior and make rational risk assessments with respect to COVID-19. Although from the beginning of the semester, Furman’s approach to COVID-19 has fundamentally relied on students to change their behavior, multiple people who crafted that very policy told me that they did not believe it would be successful. They did not have faith that Furman students could be trusted to control themselves, and just as administrators have attributed Furman’s success to students, they were also ready to blame us for failure. While those leaders should not be lambasted for doubting the maturity of college students, they should admit that they were wrong.
That matters because it means it is reasonable for students to ask “haven’t you heard?” and to expect administrators to account for our success this fall as they craft policy for this spring.
Let me be clear, I am not calling for an outright abandonment of masks, social distancing, or any of the other policies that Furman has adopted this fall. In fact, those policies may prove more important than ever as we approach the peak of flu season.
However, I am calling for the administration to approach this spring with our success this fall in mind and to adjust policy accordingly. At the very least, they should have to make an affirmative case that justifies why, despite our continued success this fall, it is absolutely necessary that we continue to double down on the same policies this spring.
In my mind, one ripe area for policy adjustment in the light of our success is the Paladin Promise. Created at a time when it was unclear how students would behave during a pandemic and influenced by an incentive to be as cautious as possible, the ideas laid out in the Paladin Promise can be useful, but not in their current form.
Understood as a set of rules governing student behavior, as it is today, the Paladin Promise is, in fact, counterproductive. Rather than keeping students safe, the rules divide us, incentivize neighbors to report one another, and are detrimental to our community’s social fabric. COVID-19 already makes social life on campus difficult, but the Paladin Promise makes it toxic. That, in turn, is harmful to our public health.
Instead, if we continue to maintain a low caseload from week to week, the University should repurpose the Paladin Promise as a set of guidelines for good behavior. In other words, the Paladin Promise, Furman’s social contract this semester, should no longer be binding or have punishments attached to it in the spring. Punitive measures can be effective, but I feel that, in this case, they are unnecessary and even harmful. Given that most students already ignore parts of the Paladin Promise and, while following it in spirit, are breaking its most strict regulations behind closed doors, I do not think that getting rid of the punitive element of the promise would bring a significant increase in terms of COVID-19 on campus.
What this change would do, however, is help cut the social tension that is currently palpable on campus. In doing so, it might allow our community’s social fabric to begin to heal. To me that is certainly worth a shot, and it is one that our student body deserves the chance to take. After all, we are doing pretty well at this. Haven’t you heard?