Trust and tradition damaged following pandemic restrictions

This May, the final undergraduate class who experienced COVID restrictions on Notre Dame’s campus will graduate. In May 2020, before the class of 2024’s freshman year, Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins, C.S.C. penned a New York Times article confirming that Notre Dame would open for instruction in the “COVID-19 era,” arguing that both science and morality made it the best decision for Notre Dame. 

And so, the “COVID year” began with an extensive series of policies set by the university. 

Masks were required for everyone, indoors and out. Performance halls and ballrooms became classrooms. Tents covered the quads. Occupancy signs covered the walls, four-foot plexiglass shields separated students in the dining halls, and hand sanitizer stands lined the hallways. 

Students uploaded their temperatures taken via university-provided thermometers and reported any self-diagnosed symptoms. They were obligated to test weekly with additional randomized tests. Students were not allowed to enter other dorms and strongly advised not to leave campus. Contact tracing was widespread and anyone who wished to report their peers for a violation of the restrictions was able to submit incidents through a university form. 

The Rover circulated an anonymous poll within the senior class to offer a space to reflect on that year and the following three years post-COVID. Most students were extremely dissatisfied with the university’s policies and had a lot to say about their freshman year under the dome, though many cited limited memory from the traumatic time. Seniors decried the policies as “infantilizing,” “illogical,” “hypocritical,” and “unhealthy,” bemoaning the detrimental effects that they had on their education and the “loneliness,” “fear,” and “divisiveness” that they caused. One student described the university’s policies as “authoritarian.” Many wondered if the Notre Dame community could ever recover. 

‘Infantilizing’ Methods

The university’s welcome back campaign utilized “HERE” phrasing. HERE signs around campus quickly became the targets of competitive acts of theft among students, with many collecting hundreds of signs by the end of the year. Instructions read, in bright green, directives like, “HERE we don’t make our professors remind us,” “HERE we offer and accept health reminders with grace,” and “HERE my mask protects you and your mask protects me.” 

One student offered a comment, “HERE sounded more like a threat than a welcome—if you don’t obey, you won’t be HERE anymore…”

Other students agreed, recalling the HERE ambassadors placed around campus and ridiculous lengths they went to attempting to enforce policies. Every student had a story. One HERE ambassador roller-skated across the whole of North Quad to make two friends six feet apart put on their masks. Another picked a student from a group of 11 having dinner around a fire pit to leave the group because the limit for such gatherings was 10 people. Another student recounted how she was screamed at by a HERE ambassador for taking her mask off alone in a hammock. Another student commented that her rector eavesdropped outside residents’ doors at absurd hours listening for multiple voices above the maximum capacity limits. 

The Rover also spoke with a professor that was similarly frustrated by Notre Dame’s COVID policies during that school year. He remembered with particular distaste the signs that read, “HERE we don’t check our responsibilities on campus,” placed near the edges of campus in order to encourage students to continue to take precautions outside Notre Dame’s zone of enforcement.

“It was infantilizing,” he said. “It was a welcome and obey mentality, which was pretty heavy-handed. The tone that was set during that year was not very welcoming,” he said. 

Students recalled the Office of Community Standards (OCS) violations with which they were charged and the process they had to go through to “apologize.” Students were liable for violations of a wide variety of behaviors: Eating soup in the library, hosting a sibling to watch March Madness, running too fast through the COVID testing center, and “liking” a photo with unmasked students in a hall GroupMe. One student was told she violated policy with “failure to follow the directive of a university official aimed at protecting life.” 

“Somehow me not spitting in a tube threatened someone’s life. I’d really love to see the science on that one,” the student commented. One student had his dorm mates cited for drunkenly knocking down a hand sanitizing dispenser, and another for braiding her friends’ hair. 

The professor recalled how students were instructed to only exhibit gratitude, regardless of the situation on campus: “Just because you’re better than some other worse situation doesn’t mean that your situation is so good. There wasn’t a lot of subsidiarity there,” he accused.

From a faculty perspective, the professor explained, it was well-known that a spike in cases would occur upon campus reopening, “especially when you’re doing radically intrusive testing.” He took issue with the university’s response when this inevitable uptick in cases occurred: “They pretended like this was the students’ fault because they were being irresponsible. … They chose to pretend as if there was no way that this transmission occurred in the classroom, or in the dorms, which would be under their purview.”

“I take offense, on behalf of the students, that we have been subjected every year [since] to something from university leadership saying ‘you have gone through the adversity of COVID, you’re the class that dealt with it, we’re so proud of you.’”

 “You, [the university’s administration] imposed the adversity,” he said. “You made the first year so horrific,” he challenged. He also thought their response disingenuous considering they financially benefited from the return to campus. 

Students expressed similar disdain, reporting many “illogical” policies including requirements to wear a mask while running around the lake alone and to continue quarantining after multiple negative tests. Additionally, students recalled regulations that limited acceptable gatherings to 10 people while standing and eight while sitting as particularly absurd. Even emergency situations did not always obviate these stringent regulations, as one student recounted how she was reprimanded for not grabbing a mask after a midnight fire alarm. 

A student noted that the restrictions were followed without rational reason when they witnessed a masked student hundreds of feet away from others outdoors: “this moment is representative of the mindset that was cultivated by the COVID restrictions: paranoia.”

Effects on Education

Soren Grefenstette, a 2019 alumna who served as a Teaching Assistant and advisor in the constitutional studies program in 2020, noted the effects the policies had on classroom instruction. “The COVID restrictions clearly had an impact on conversation in the classroom,” she said, “but also on the opinions that were shared and the student-professor relationship … Any time COVID or the restrictions were brought up, there were very few voices who were willing to criticize. There was a state of fear … of the administration.”

Grefenstette continued, “I don’t think very many students were worried about their particular safety regarding the virus, I think it was mostly just the state of the law.” She and the professor both noted students who left majors because of their severity in enforcement. 

A Japanese major disclosed that her language classes became increasingly difficult and that many of the department’s traditions and connections were severed. Another student was forced to finish a titration lab at a hotel after being contact-traced. 

Mental Health Concerns

Students also noted the damage to physical and mental health that the restrictions caused. They commented on the lack of sustainability processes in the dining halls, concern over the boxed food’s sanitary and chemical avoidance, and the animals infiltrating campus and hiding out in trash cans and tents. Many students fell into loneliness due to extreme isolation.

Mental health problems persisted beyond the COVID year itself, too. University Counseling Center saw an increase in the number of students from the Class of 2024 seeking counseling even as sophomores.

There was always this weird dynamic when meeting people. … You would never know how comfortable they would be with things that would ordinarily be considered completely normal, such as giving a friend a hug,” one student said. “It’s hard to have a community if we literally can’t socialize,” said another. 

Quarantine stories with students noting feeling like “zoo animals” and “lab rats” filled the survey, with one student restricted from seeing her father who had flown up to visit despite testing negative because her quad mate had tested positive the week prior. 

A Climate of Fear

Fear was the most prominent frustration, with many detailing anxiety that authorities would call into question their commitment to the safety of campus. One student developed panic attacks from the sound of someone outside her door, fearing hall staff was outside ready to write her up at any moment. 

The professor noted that the same climate of fear and censorship promoted on a national scale made its way to Notre Dame through the bureaucratic decision-making of the administration: “COVID was something where a general decision at a very far-removed level [i.e. “the halls of the federal bureaucracy”]” was instituted ‘top-down.’” 

“Most university policies don’t touch every student in the same way, but this one did. It was an opportunity for there to be a real discussion with students as members of the community about how they wanted to live through the virus. But there was nothing about that. … That certainly revealed something about how the university sees the students: not ultimately participants in this community. ‘You are to be managed and controlled,’” he said. 

Restrictions became even more infuriating when Fr. Jenkins tested positive after failing to follow the travel, mask, and social distancing guidelines set at Notre Dame during his trip to the Rose Garden for Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation. Calls for him to resign filled Observer pages, and a Rover survey made it clear that students are still upset about his apparent hypocrisy with COVID guidelines. 

According to one student, the lack of student consideration was frustrating mainly because research showed how minimal the risk was of their experiencing high-risk medical emergencies from contracting COVID. In fact, only three students were hospitalized, and they were released only days later in good health. 

Belief that the university’s administration operated with an “authoritarian” mindset was prominent in the responses. Noting the university’s removal of basketball rims and volleyball nets, holds placed on students’ registration due to skipping out on exit-testing for Thanksgiving Break, the daily health checks, and the gifting of Domer Dollars to those who “followed and promoted health and safety guidelines” were just some examples. 

“[The administration] was in authoritarian mode. They thought that any kind of criticism was a sign of a lack of gratitude,” the professor said. “Asking for people to upload videos of people if they were in violation of the protocols was also a way of alienating people from one another. … it doesn’t build a climate of trust.” 

One student reflected, “Looking back, I will never again trust any administrative body to tell me what to do. I can’t believe I accepted being locked up like that for weeks at a time. I have a similar feeling with the vaccine. I trusted the university and doctors when they said the vaccine is safe and effective, so I got it, and it is one of my biggest regrets. I am so embarrassed that our university required us to get this experimental shot and be lab rats for big pharma.”


Many felt that the university’s balancing of conscience protections for those who chose not to receive the vaccine was also insufficient. Incentives were sent out daily for students to reach a “90 percent vaccinated” campus, including free football tickets, flex points, and easing of restrictions. Despite the reported high number of vaccinations, students who chose not to receive the shot were required to continue masking and weekly testing well into the spring of 2022. 

“They could have predicted that there was going to be a significant portion of the student population at Notre Dame that was not going to want to take the vaccine,” the professor said. “Maybe they can claim that this is about student health, but it was also a poor way of balancing people’s conscience over against the value of stopping the spread. … Why stigmatize those who for medical, religious, or moral reasons did not want to take a vaccine? They did not treat them with the adequate level of respect that the granting of exemption should carry with it.” 

One student pointed out the sign placed in the testing center in the fall of 2021: “Tired of testing because you aren’t vaccinated? Get the shot.” Another told a story of her experience in a Chinese language class in which the professor went around the room asking when each student planned to get their shot, “I told her I didn’t have to give her that information because it was my personal medical information. She flipped out…” 

Several other stories concerned glaring privacy violations with students’ medical information. 

Observer articles, hall staff, and professors were reported as having berated students for not getting vaccinated. Many students accused the administration of sewing division amongst the student body: “What shouldn’t be forgotten, though, is the extreme compliance of the Notre Dame student body to obey such policies. Most have forgotten about the extreme peer pressure and environment created by our fellow students in enforcing irrational policies. The fear … was never about repercussions from a teacher or RA, instead, it was the endless passive-aggressive comments from peers and dorm mates if you decided not to get a booster or not to wear a mask when sitting alone on a quad.” 

Traditions Lost

Notre Dame’s traditions were also impacted. Grefenstette recalled talking to students about rich traditions such as hall serenades and football chants, which she said were integral to her Notre Dame experience but seemingly died away with the pandemic.  Several other students noted the game-day rituals that campus seems to have forgotten.

Former President of Notre Dame Right to Life, Francie Aimone, mentioned the since-lacking participation in the national March for Life, a trip Notre Dame usually brings the most students of any other school. Furthermore, Dome dances, tailgating, welcome weekend programming, and intramural sports didn’t exist that year, meaning by the time the events were brought back, half of campus was experiencing them for the first time. 

“Notre Dame is such a place of traditions,” Grefenstette added, “and those traditions will change over time, but what I was really saddened by as an alumna was seeing how the now-seniors were unable to teach the consecutive classes all of these rich aspects of Notre Dame life. COVID was unnatural, it was a change of tradition without any voice or intention from the students, they had to experience it in a passive way. It was all outside of their control.”

The class of 2024 seemed more split on the topic of traditions, with many grateful that their own communities were able to grow and flourish in the aftermath of COVID. Others commented on the “clique-ness” of the class who had to learn to find friends with the same convictions and cling to them because of the distrust promoted among students their freshman year. 

“I think there was a lot of institutional memory lost from pre- and post-COVID Notre Dame,” said one student. “I lost a lot of trust in the Notre Dame student body and in our administrators. I’ll always be thankful for the opportunity to have in-person learning and for Notre Dame leading the way in that respect, but I won’t forget the sheep mentality [demonstrated by] 8,000 healthy undergraduates. That first year and a half was nothing like Notre Dame now.”

“I just hope that the University can learn from its past mistakes of blindly conforming to cultural pressures and focus on the well-being of the students it is serving,” said another student. 

Grefenstette encouraged students interested in regaining tradition to reach out to older graduates to learn what Notre Dame was like before COVID. “From a cultural standpoint, [COVID] was just such a state of fear. Traditions are part of the life of the mind that is a university and those are just tangible examples of how the complete state of fear impacted all aspects of student life. What I would like to see regained the most strongly is the strong intellectual community and friendship that is most central to Notre Dame’s mission.” 

Merlot is (pretty) sure now that she is graduating so she’d just like to say: “Home” would have been a much better campaign for the COVID year and she has much lore to share about her freshman experience. If you’d like to hear Merlot-lore, or you sense another authoritarian regime emerging, Merlot can be contacted via She won’t let it happen again. 

Photo Credit: Matt Cashore

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