As a part of the University of Dallas’s COVID-19 Campus Reopening Plan, all members of the academic community–faculty, staff and students, were asked to sign the Groundhog Pledge prior to their return to campus this fall. Some aspects of this pledge sparked controversy among the university community.
In order to “promote the common good and well-being of friends, colleagues, and the UD community,” the pledge requires students to adhere to the following guidelines: social distance 14 days prior to arriving to campus, wear a mask at all times inside university buildings and outside if unable to maintain 6 feet of distance from others, wash hands often, frequently sanitize high-contact objects, follow all instructions directing the flow of foot traffic, minimize visitors and off-campus activity, self-monitor for symptoms of the virus and “encourage friends to uphold this pledge for their health and safety and that of others in our community.”
Julia Carrano, dean of students, said that the Groundhog Pledge was penned by members of the UD General Counsel, namely Heather Lachenauer and Dr. John Plotts. According to Carrano, the General Counsel made the decision to write a pledge rather than a waiver. They made this decision in order to instill a sense of personal accountability, rather than UD community members being asked to “waive their rights away,” according to Carrano.
Carrano also noted that there were two versions of the Groundhog Pledge: the first version was written with a preamble, emailed to students on July 14. A second email, titled “Revised Groundhog Pledge,” was sent to students on July 22, but with the preamble omitted.
“The preamble was a theoretical, value-driven statement,” Carrano said. “It’s about how you feel or should feel, and thus it had some religious undertones. Students may not agree with the preamble but still agree to wash their hands and socially distance. A lot of people did [sign it], and a lot of people reached out and said they could not, in good conscience, sign it.”
One student who objected to the Preamble specifically was junior English major Isabella Childs. After closely reading the Preamble, Childs reached out to Dr. Plotts requesting an exemption from signing the Groundhog Pledge. In her email, Childs wrote, “I cannot say that I believe that I must take extraordinary steps to remain healthy, as neither civil nor church law can ask any of us to do anything out of the ordinary to preserve our fragile human health. …However, I will follow the rules on the pledge with as much patience as possible.”
All students, faculty and staff were asked to sign the Groundhog Pledge. However, signing was not required to return to campus.
The COVID Implementation Committee, according to Carrano, made the decision not to discipline students, faculty or staff if they decided not to sign the pledge. UD is holding all members of the community accountable to the guidelines of the Pledge, whether or not they signed it.
“The value of the Pledge, for me,” said Carrano, “is that it is a simple outline of all the major requirements. In essence, it is distancing, masking and self-reporting illnesses. That’s the essentials of what we need to do.”
“The Groundhog Pledge is fantastic,” said junior Alan Galicia. “It aligns with what science is telling us will slow the spread of this very contagious virus. I’m going to make sure to do most that I can to prevent the spread and protect my fellow people. If you don’t wear a mask, you’re going against what the majority of scientists are saying.”
Some students objected to the pledge for a variety of reasons.
“I agreed to follow the rules to come to campus,” Childs said. “There’s evidence that masks really aren’t that effective. I think that masks are causing more problems to our education, both practically and psychologically. Professors waste ten minutes of every class setting up Zoom class, and there are tons of technical problems and Internet problems. Psychologically, there’s something strange about wearing masks in the classroom. It closes students off, it makes some students retreat further into their shell.”
Childs also saw discrepancies in campus COVID testing, especially since commuters were not tested as a requirement to enter the campus, as opposed to on-campus residents, who were tested before they moved in.
While some students objected to signing the pledge, some felt ambivalent towards it.
“I didn’t feel that the pledge had great political meaning either way to me, or that it was an infringement of my rights. I just never ended up signing it,” said sophomore Kameron Manning.
Many students signed the pledge simply because they thought that it would enable the campus to reopen.
Sophomore Max Lagarde said, “I am willing to wear a mask because it enables me to stay on campus. The school is telling us to do it, so I’ll do it. I don’t think it has any practical purpose, though.”
Kieran Teh, a junior, was frustrated with fellow students who aren’t masking.
“I think a lot of people seem to not care whether or not the semester continues. It’s not that hard to wear a mask. It’s nothing out of your own damn day,” Teh said.
But Carrano said that whatever controversy there might have been has settled.
“I think now the issue is the disciplinary action,” she said. “Many students are frustrated, especially because the reports [of parties and lack of social distancing] are coming from other students.”
“The reporting [of off-campus parties] feels very communist,” Childs said. “Obviously you can’t control what students do off-campus. This is not a logical way to keep us safe.”
“If we don’t follow these guidelines, we are sending our friends and peers home,” said Carrano. “The purpose of this [Pledge] is not disciplining people, it’s to ensure that students can remain on campus.”