RU’s Handling of Large Student Events Coming Into Question During the COVID-19 Pandemic

4 min read The Bigger Picture March occurred, and how Radford University handled this large event during a pandemic has come into question.

Students marching

Photo Credit: (Tartan Staff) Participants were packed together on a sidewalk, most definitely not six feet apart, and there was a growing lack of following the "diamond" formation while marching.

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By Michael Aaron Coopersmith | mcoopersmith@radford.edu 

Radford University hosted The Bigger Picture march and rally, Sept. 19, that brought students in droves to the campus in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw administrators and students social distancing and not social distancing. This moment would be when students and staff stood together and show collective support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

The event began with speeches, located in front of the McConnel library, discussing the varied influences that have caused this march to happen. Organizers spoke powerful words of their experiences within a society that has hurt them.

Such measures as signs stating masks will be necessary and enforced, attendees being assigned specific socially distanced positions on Muse and Moffett lawn, and even the marching formation of a “diamond” were put in place to mitigate transmission.

Yet, as I listened to the speeches, there was a moment where a speaker addressed the “elephant” in the room; D.J. Preston, Director of Student Recreation and Wellness at RU, said, “People want to see this rally to fail. Wear your masks. Keep your distance. And keep your hands off your neighbor.”

The speaker referred to the controversy surrounding this event, being that it was hosted during the Coronavirus pandemic. This pandemic has caused Radford University to enforce rules such as no guest in dorms, social distance policies, and a limitation of public gatherings on campus to 10 people.

Obviously, this march had more than 10 people.

But, in defense of all this, I don’t think that the organizers of the march and the University’s administration believed that this event would be exempt from the potential transmission of COVID-19 from students attending.

Such measures as signs stating masks will be necessary and enforced, attendees being assigned specific socially distanced positions on Muse and Moffett lawn, and even the marching formation of a “diamond” were put in place to mitigate transmission.

People are not perfect, especially in a grand number of them. The rules of social distancing are where this applies.

The social distancing provisions on Muse and Moffett’s lawns were seemingly difficult to enforce during the literal movement of people between those points. Participants were packed together on a sidewalk, most definitely not six feet apart, and there was a growing lack of following the “diamond” formation while marching.

People marching
Photo Credit: (Tartan Staff) There was a growing lack of following the “diamond” formation while marching.

This drifting could have been due to many people having to curve around the fountain, thus losing formation and having little help to get back into the specified diamond.

It wasn’t until they came out of Heth and Russell’s bottleneck that people were able to spread out more and continue to Moffett lawn.

I believe an alternative route they could have taken would be between Washington and Russel, a much more significant gap for the large group of attendees.

The marchers weren’t the only ones not entirely following social distancing protocol. President Brian O. Hemphill had seemingly forgotten the need to socially distance with students.

After the event, he was seen hugging different students that had approached him. This action can be seen as an unnecessary risk.

Two men hugging
Photo Credit: (Tartan Staff) After the event, Hemphill was seen hugging different students that had approached him.

It should be stated that Hemphill may have been put under the dilemma of embracing his fellow students in this powerful moment while risking transmission. Either way, he made that choice.

Radford University is heavily enforcing social distancing policies, to the point of punishment. Hemphill personally broke social distance protocol during an event that wanted strict social distancing, which can be interpreted as hypocritical to the student body.

The number of cases may be down slightly, but it doesn’t mean it just has disappeared. Until the virus is eradicated from campus, Radford University will not be safe. The breaking of social distancing protocol, even in small moments, can be enough to create a potential spike.

It’s the little things that we do to stop transmission, but little things can also become bigger things. It only takes just a small number of asymptomatic carriers placed in the right conditions, especially those of close quarters, that we can lose all the progress we have made with preventative measures.

The risk of students unknowingly exposed to a virus due to a large event poses such a significant threat. They will continue with their lives and activities, meeting with friends and fellow students, potentially carrying the virus and spreading it, all due to the little things.

As we follow the rules put in place by our administration, it is only the right thing to do to ensure that they follow social distancing. We must mitigate human error that may cause transmission. This is how we could keep ourselves grounded during this crisis.

With this in mind, should we have events that have broad participation of attendees on campus during this time? That even with preventative measures, they will get broken due to human error.

Even though our cases are slightly going down, should that give us the confidence to have large events again? As the Bigger Picture march was a powerful moment in Radford University’s history, these questions have appeared.

As we follow the rules put in place by our administration, it is only the right thing to do to ensure that they follow social distancing. We must mitigate human error that may cause transmission. This is how we could keep ourselves grounded during this crisis.