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Campus Under COVID-19: The Preservation of Safe Spaces

Author Azar Nafisi once wrote, “You get a strange feeling when you are about to leave a place. Like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” This quote felt especially relevant for many students on Wednesday, March 11, when they were told they had to evacuate due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So here we are, having spent four months away from campus. Anxious and excited hearts all across the country and the world are itching to return to the place they call home: Boston College. However, in light of the global pandemic, students, faculty, and staff are treading into unknown territory. 

Boston College’s coronavirus task force recently released an email outlining how the fall semester will look for students both on and off-campus. With study abroad canceled and more students than normal on campus, Boston College has been faced with difficult decisions regarding the education of their students.

The news changes every single day, so it is hard for universities to say definitively what will occur when students return to campus. Some, such as Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH, and Notre Dame in South Bend, IN, have decided to send students home for Thanksgiving and not have them return until after the New Year holiday. As of the current moment, it seems that this plan is not in the cards for Boston College. 

BC has decided to open as planned, on August 31, with strict guidelines in place. Students must wear face coverings at all times with the exception of being in their own personal rooms and when eating. Students must seek permission from the Provost to travel outside of campus and the immediate surrounding area. Class sizes will be severely limited, and social distancing will be practiced all throughout campus including dining halls and other shared spaces. Boston College has also announced that some courses will be online, or some sort of hybrid between online and in-person instruction. This decision comes at the discretion of the professors, as well as the administration. 

 A college campus is essentially a petri dish for all sorts of germs. As Professor David Storey of the Philosophy department puts it, “If the virus could design its own Disney World, it would be a college campus.” 

With this in mind, Boston College has set up a diligent procedure for testing students and a designated space on campus for quarantine, if a student comes down with the novel coronavirus. Those in high-contact positions such as Resident Assistants, athletic staff, and dining hall staff will be tested weekly. In addition, the infamous gameday tailgates and even the football games themselves have been put on the back burner of discussion. The football team has returned to campus for workouts and training, while still staying inside the lines of social distancing mandates. All of these plans are still tentative and depend on the development of the coronavirus.

Professor Storey believes, “We should recognize that university administrations are faced with an impossible problem. If we had a functional federal government and a rational citizenry that had worked in tandem to tame the virus, I'd be more optimistic about BC's Fall plans working out.” 

It is clear that a rational community is essential to preventing the spread of COVID on campus. However, many people, including Professor Storey, believe that it is, “unrealistic to think that thousands of college students are going to comply with safety protocols.” To combat this concern, the BC administration has established a new requirement for students. Their June 29 email states that prior to arrival on campus, all students will be required to sign the Eagles Care Pledge. This Pledge declares dedication to the adherence of BC’s COVID-19 policies, as well as committing to take care of oneself, others, and the community. The hybrid courses proposed by Boston College may add relief to this uncertainty. 

It is impossible to discuss the reopening of Boston College without covering the impact it will have on the many communities across campus, particularly BIPOC. In the previous months, Boston College has released several statements regarding the state of racial injustice in the world. It took over a week for BC to release a statement on the murder of George Floyd. Even when providing that first statement, Father Leahy neglected to say the most important words: Black Lives Matter. Following backlash from students, Leahy and a group of his administration released another statement referencing the same injustice. Leahy announced the creation of The Boston College Forum on Racial Justice in America, as well as a series of multi-faith sessions designated to, “pray[ing] for healing and reconciliation in our local community and nation.”

While the forum and other measures put in place to foster a community for everyone may be a step in the right direction, the Boston College administration has since been censoring black voices, and students are fed up. It is imperative that within the conversation surrounding reopening, students also discuss how these events will impact the environment on campus. Khayli Petigny, MCAS ‘22, makes it clear that the minority communities on campus are facing significant worries of further discrimination.

Petigny explains, “POC may feel even more disconnected. Everyone is grinding during the week and Friday nights with parties [are] when fashion shows and other culturally aware events take place. I’m not sure if culturally aware is the most appropriate way to say it, but places where POC can be unapologetically themselves, specifically black people, these events are the hub for cultural awareness.” 

Petigny adds, “A lot of the events put on by the AHANA community and those that amplify voices of POC are big events such as Black History Month and dinners hosted by the BAIC.” One loss that sticks out to her is the possible absence of the annual dance showcase: Showdown. Petigny has always seen it as a, “melting pot of cultural diversity and education.” While this event does not take place until the spring, BC might need to think ahead for safe alternatives to these culturally relevant events.  Showdown is wildly popular among students and helps provide cultural awareness to the student body, an area that has been widely acknowledged as lacking at BC.

As an example, it is incredibly difficult to find a student who has had a BIPOC professor. Petigny comments on this as well: “Generally, you only get a Black professor if you’re learning about Black stuff which is totally not okay.” Not to mention, it took Boston College until 2019 to add African and African Diaspora Studies as a major. People at BC, especially members of the AHANA and LGBTQ+ communities, are well aware of the discrimination on campus.

Many feel that COVID will deeply impact the presence of “safe spaces” in our new environment. The notion of a safe space is one that is widely debated. The politically charged topic proves to be a difficult one to manage for many schools.  Professor Storey says that in order to maintain these safe spaces for BIPOC on campus, it is imperative that BC, “try to set aside a space, literally, for students to congregate and talk about socially and politically charged issues.” It is important that these spaces are determined by the students, with, “minimal involvement by faculty or administrators.”

This is crucial to creating a truly safe space because the administration is a large source of stress for many of those students seeking these environments in the first place. Boston College is no stranger to politics. As a PWI, they often find themselves in a position of criticism resulting from their shortcomings.

 In speaking with Professor Storey, he defined a safe space as, “A place where people from marginalized identities feel like their voices are heard and their perspective is valued. Importantly, it is also a place where people with politically incorrect views feel free to speak their minds.” These are places of education and compassion. 

Storey feels it necessary to point out that, “Ideally, we should all be working to make every space safe.” Whether it be a table in Mac, a lounge in Walsh, or a common room in Iggy, safe spaces are about, “an optimal balance between the freedom that challenges us and the security that supports us.” It is up to the students who use these environments to support and challenge one another in both comfortable and uncomfortable situations. It is important that the administration work out a plan to keep these students safe and the places functional through the pandemic. It is also crucial that Boston College make this as much of a priority as possible. Now is the time to change. 

The conversation surrounding preserving and protecting safe spaces through the COVID-19 pandemic reaches beyond the realm of Boston College and even universities as a whole. Anna Miller, a rising high school junior at The Rivers School in Weston, MA, says that she is witnessing similar movements on her campus. The development of a student-led white ally group on the Rivers campus is one way that Miller sees the campus progressing. She believes that the administration must support their BIPOC students through this pandemic by protecting safe spaces and ensuring a support system. Miller says that out of all 93 of her junior classmates, only three are people of color. Boston College’s shortcomings in terms of making BC a comfortable place for their BIPOC community are very apparent. Although some students have commended the development of The Boston College Forum on Racial Justice in America, others do not think it is enough.

Whether it be a high school, college, or any other institution, it is important that these establishments actively combat the racism happening in our world. In the upcoming semester, Boston College’s COVID-19 plans must still ensure that safe spaces may exist on campus. For many students, this is the only place they truly feel comfortable and heard. As students return to campus this fall, they are hopeful that change can be made. This is the continuation of a very long conversation, and it is far from over.

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