Nearly 2,000 students at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, woke up on Thursday, September 3rd, to startling news: in less than twenty-four hours, all of them would be confined to their dorm rooms for at least the next two weeks. They would be allowed out of their rooms only three times a day to procure food. Any other movement outside of their individual rooms or, in some cases, suites, would be a violation of a county-imposed order that would go into effect that evening at midnight.
Besides being taken aback at the chilling expediency of the order, many students were disheartened because of how many sacrifices they had already made in order to attend in-person classes at Benedictine. The college had expected them to quarantine for two weeks; to be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival; to practice social distancing and follow masking mandates; and, in what was a particularly poignant source of grief for many of them, to accept a far more restricted sense of community than they had come to expect of this small, residential liberal arts college known for its long-lasting bonds of fraternity.
True, some students had not exercised prudence since they had arrived on campus some weeks earlier. The county had evidence of community spread that they could trace to at least two students’ activities. Some off-campus events had not exactly been models of community-sparing sobriety. And a few students had been openly challenging the masking and social distancing standards, especially when traveling beyond the borders of the campus.
The county had intervened on August 28th with serious concerns and the threat of a quarantine order. Benedictine College promised to put even more stringent practices into place. In a rare departure from his buoyant, cheerful optimism, President Stephen Minnis took the students to task in a much-watched video that let the whole community know what was at stake: the future of the college. If they wanted to stay in Atchison, they would have to follow the county’s rules to the letter. He exhorted them to fast and pray with him until September 8th, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary.
Student behavior had already been very good, and now it became excellent. As a professor at the college, I witnessed the change myself, such as students taking interest in why my colleagues and I were spraying industrial-strength virus eradicator on all the desks after class. The number of positive cases seemed to be going down, too, just as many students voluntarily quarantined in case they had been exposed.
That was the situation for the several days between August 28th and September 3rd, when, without warning, the house arrest order dropped.
Many in the greater community saw that the Atchison County Health Department’s order seemed greatly disproportionate, and local attorney Mike Kuckelman took to his public Facebook page to dress down the county. The terms of the quarantine, wrote Kuckelman, amounted to “house arrest” and were blatantly “unconstitutional…[this is] one of the most overreaching orders issued in the entire country.” Calling on other lawyers, Kuckelman arranged for several of them to offer their services to students pro bono in filing the papers for a hearing, which would take each student’s circumstances into account and was each student’s right to exercise. Kuckelman laid out the exact steps each student would need to go through, assuring them that the $149 filing fee would not be an obstacle for any student, thanks in part to the largesse of several members of the Atchison community.
What Kuckelman also made shockingly clear was that the county itself would be absorbing hundreds of dollars per student to offer them their legal right to a hearing. Depending on how many of the 2,000 students filed for a hearing, the county might realistically be facing an enormous expenditure by enacting the order—money that would likely be much better spent on more reliable methods of curtailing the virus’s spread.
That it took Kuckelman to inform students of this reality struck many as an egregious oversight on the county’s part, if not an all too convenient omission.
As Benedictine College administrators and staff met in marathon Zoom meetings with the county over the next couple of days, it became apparent that a good portion of the data the county was relying on to make its decisions was factually incorrect or wrongly reported. I will give only two small examples here.
First, Benedictine College had used saliva or spit tests, and for reasons still unknown the numbers of those kinds of tests were not being fully reported to the state. Those omissions made Benedictine’s positives look much more severe than they actually were.
Second, the county had gotten into the habit of looking at and in some cases publicizing total numbers instead of current numbers. In the draft of the order, for instance, the county reports the college’s “positive test percentage” as 7.8%. That number represents the total number of positive tests done over several weeks and is calculated not on the size of the immediate community but only on the number of tests done—some of which were not unique (i.e., some students had been tested twice).
If one looks at the history of positive cases at the college, however, one finds that the current daily percentage of positive cases never exceeded 3% on any given day. On September 3rd, in fact, the rate was just below 2%, calculated based on positive cases in relation to the campus population (just under 2,500 students, faculty, and staff).
For comparison, the correspondingly calculated rate in the United States at that time was about 6%; in Kansas, over 10%—five times higher than the college. Numbers like these lent even more credence to a recent Wall Street Journal editorial which announced that Kansas’s “health secretary fudged the data to make the governor’s mask mandate look successful.” If the State of Kansas was making stuff up, why not the county?
Realizing the threat the college was facing, many students, faculty, and staff took to prayer. Many of them gathered for a student-organized recitation of the Rosary on September 3rd. President Minnis asked for prayers during the negotiations at this time, and one of the county doctors did just that: she prayed right along with President Minnis in the Zoom meetings.
The college and the county reached a compromise on September 4th, even giving it a catchy, marketable title: “Atchison and Benedictine: Stronger Together.” For the next two weeks, on-campus students would agree not to go off campus except for essential needs, while off-campus students would take all classes online and not come to campus except for demonstrated academic necessity. Other details regarding sports teams and the like were also hammered out, but key to the whole agreement was a peacemaking effort: “Benedictine College and Atchison are not two communities in conflict, but one community.”
The college celebrated on Mary’s birthday, giving thanks for her intercession with her Son.
I would like to say that our brush with house arrest ends there—that, like something out of a Frank Capra film, the wider community has come together and is now showing a spirit of good will that has exorcised the villain from our midst. But the county continues to insist that the compromise they entered into is a “day by day” affair and that the original order could be enacted at any time.
Somehow, I think that this story is just beginning. To quote the late Fr. Paul Mankowski, SJ, who himself was quoting Wilfrid Sheed, “I find absolutely no grounds for optimism, and I have every reason for hope.”
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