Understanding the spread: COVID-19 and Greek life

Communication concerning the Feb. 4 COVID-19 spike initially overlooked the role of Greek life

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While the university’s official messaging on the COVID-19 surge emphasized that student organizations were not at fault, administrators privately told Greek Organizations their members were the source of spread.

Olivia Field, Senior Writer

On Feb. 4 at 1:47 p.m., university administrators sent an email to the campus community with a warning: if cases continued to grow at the exponential rate of more than 150 in 48 hours, Wake Forest would have no choice but to establish a lockdown under Red operating status. The email also informed students that the university would be moving to a modified Orange operating status. 

The “unsustainable trends” were attributed to “social activity — small and large gatherings, on and off-campus parties, and groups congregating at bars and restaurants. In these cases, masks were not worn, gathering sizes were ignored, and social distancing was not respected.”

At approximately 8 p.m. that evening, presidents of Greek organizations received an email from Fraternity and Sorority Life Director Betsy Adams. The email, which was obtained by the Old Gold & Black, repeated the above quote with one key difference: it was followed by an acknowledgement that “a concerning number of these cases are associated with official or unofficial chapter functions.”

Although it was never disclosed to the full university community via official communication, the Old Gold & Black has confirmed that 90% of positive cases between Feb. 1 and Feb. 4 can be attributed to Greek life.

According to Dean of Students Adam Goldstein, much of the social activity that can be traced back to spread was connected with sorority rush.

“Social activities contributed to the surge in positive cases in our community, and we can trace much of that to events hosted — officially or unofficially — by fraternity and sorority members,” Goldstein said.

Adams did note that the Historically Black fraternities and sororities that make up the National Panhellenic Council did not contribute to the spike. As of Feb. 19, Kappa Kappa Gamma and Sigma Alpha Epsilon have both been placed under interim suspension pending conduct investigations.

“Unfortunately, members of the fraternity and sorority community made decisions that didn’t follow social distancing guidelines and enabled the spread of COVID-19. Those decisions included gatherings of various sizes in spaces on and off-campus,” Adams said. “Recruitment generates a lot of excitement, as does returning from an extended break. I think the combination of everything helped facilitate the surge.”

Although much chatter on campus surrounding the spike in COVID-19 cases earlier this month attaches the exponential growth to Greek life, initial university communication on the matter varied depending on the audience. For instance, Sociology Professor Hana Brown told the Old Gold & Black that, during the faculty-wide meeting on the afternoon of Feb. 5, university administrators and Dr. Chris Ohl specifically stated that student organizations were not the cause of the spike.

“They were insistent in that meeting that the spiking coronavirus cases had nothing to do with campus organizations. That was the word they used, it wasn’t ‘organizations’ — it was really just a friend here and a friend there hanging out after a break. They repeated that line many times: ‘It’s just, you know, a couple of friends who really missed each other, just like you missed your family over the holidays,” Brown said. “And so they didn’t explicitly say that it wasn’t Greek organizations, but they didn’t respond to any of the many comments and questions that were being sent in the chat from faculty about Greek organizations. They repeatedly [said the spike was] not traceable to campus organizations.”

Brown shared via Twitter that, despite the reassurance given to faculty that transmission was not related to campus organizations, she learned that Hatch had emailed Greek organizations that the spread can be traced back to fraternity and sorority activity. Brown later updated the tweet with a note that faculty were given the 90% data point on Feb. 8, and told the Old Gold & Black that department chairs were informed of the connection on Feb. 4.

“That contrast and those opposing positions really felt intentionally misleading on the part of the administrators who were in that meeting,” Brown said. “And I found that disheartening and frustrating, because if anything has to be the foundation of our COVID response on campus, it has to be honesty and trust. And so when the administration knowingly spread inaccurate accounts of the role of Greek life in the current surge, I think they violated both of those. So that was a violation of both honesty and trust.”

The lack of communication from university administrators described by Brown was also echoed by Kappa Delta President and junior Hannah Hill. While speaking with the Old Gold & Black on Feb. 13, Hill stressed the complicated nature of handling the spike and providing sufficient communication with students. However, in Hill’s view, the university was unsuccessfully juggling two tasks: attempting not to place blame on the public stage while also trying to hold Greek organizations accountable for the spike. 

“It’s almost like they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth. They’re trying to say —  because I don’t think the school wants to get rid of Greek life —  they’re saying to the people who are upset and would say ‘oh we need to get rid of Greek life,’ I think they’re saying ‘oh it’s not Greek life’s fault’,” Hill said. “But then to [Greek organizations], they say ‘it’s your fault you need to get your stuff together,’ so that’s been really frustrating.”

Since the initial spike in cases, university officials and Fraternity and Sorority Life staff have met with Greek organizations and their leaders multiple times. The first of such meetings took place on Feb. 5, and both Goldstein and Hatch were present. According to a student who was present during the Feb. 5 meeting and preferred for their identity not to be disclosed, both Hatch and Goldstein reprimanded organization leaders for the rise in cases and placed specific blame on Greek life activity for the spike.

Of the two organizations currently suspended, Kappa Kappa Gamma was the first to be placed under investigation. The Feb. 4 issue of the Old Gold & Black’s Police Beat .details the breaking up of a Kappa Kappa Gamma party at the Vintage Sofa Bar on Jan. 27. Although the Old Gold & Black has been unable to confirm a connection between this event and their suspension, Adams explained that “any student organization — including fraternities and sororities — that is alleged to host an event that violates the above policy is referred to Student Conduct for investigation.”

Beyond specific communication related to the COVID-19 spike, many leaders of Greek organizations and students alike have expressed concern relating to the general conduct process. Panhellenic President and junior Emily Conway shared that, while she thought the school has been transparent regarding positivity rates and testing, policies surrounding student activity have been less clear. Despite these concerns, both IFC President and junior Nate Seegel and Conway told the Old Gold & Black that IFC and Panhellenic chapters have been working closely with university officials since the initial spike.

“I would like to see the school’s policies regarding COVID regulations be a little less ambiguous and [more] easily accessible,” Conway said. “However, as a Panhellenic council, we see that challenge and have been working to clarify [the situation] by providing a simplified breakdown of rules and regulations to each chapter president. I think that the situation’s gravity has been made clear to each chapter’s executive board through our meetings with Dr. Hatch, Dean Goldstein and other university staff.”

Sharing a similar perspective, Seegel said, “I think the administration has improved its communication with fraternities and sororities in response to the recent spike. In retrospect, had we been able to predict the spread of the coronavirus on campus better, there could have been more effective and broader communication.”

A Feb. 23 letter from Panhellenic leaders emphasizes the work that Greek organizations are doing to address the spread.

“We recognize that there is still work to be done as a Panhellenic community to motivate our members to create a safe and healthy environment for all. We do not condone any behavior that goes against the university’s guidelines. We are actively working to help minimize the spread of COVID-19 by establishing specific guidelines within our chapters,” the letter stated.

In a similar vein, Seegel emphasized to the Old Gold & Black the work that fraternity presidents are doing to ensure that another spike does not occur.

“I am disappointed in any actions by individual members of fraternities that may have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 on campus. As an IFC, we set clear expectations for a virtual recruitment process. If we receive direct allegations that a chapter violated the virtual recruitment plan set forth at the beginning of the semester, we have an internal accountability system that we can utilize. We are prepared to do so,” Seegel said.

The ramifications of the spike have reverberated outside of Greek organizations with equal force. After hearing rumors of the university moving to Red status, Junior Christopher Cates was not surprised. Living close to Campus Gas and hearing stories of alleged fraternity parties, Cates was taken aback by the degree to which the university withheld information from faculty and non-Greek students.

“It frustrates me because it was such a lack of accountability,” Cates said. “I think there should be clear communication on what actions are being taken to address [the role of Greek life].”

Moreover, Cates said he believes non-Greek affiliated students bear more of the brunt of COVID-19 on campus than those in Greek organizations.

“Most non-Greek affiliated students are not partying, we are taking precautions, we are not having fun. And then you have students who are partying, and yes they get [the virus], but they all are wealthy, they can deal with the price of a doctor’s visit or a hospital bill, and are able to go to the Best Western, do the module, and go on with their lives,” Cates said. “Then some of us, we are on scholarship and have to keep up with school, and many of us come from low-income families and communities in which COVID-19 is such a risk for us — there are a lot of people who don’t have insurance and can’t afford to go to the doctor or risk themselves by partying.”

Brown, through her lens as a sociologist, echoed the idea that the COVID-19 experience can be much different for students depending on their socioeconomic background.

“We know that students who are part of Greek organizations are more affluent than the student body as a whole at Wake Forest. And that means that COVID-19 is being spread through and by affluent students who have the resources to deal with getting COVID-19 and missing class —  you can go quarantine at your family’s second home and be fine. The students who are having to struggle their way through this are the same students that the university is expecting to make sacrifices right now,” Brown said. “And those are the students who don’t have those resources — they don’t have a vacation home they can go to, they don’t have parents who can buy them a plane ticket. In some cases, they don’t even have a permanent home they can go to. Those students and our staff as well, who are the most marginalized, need to be front and center in our COVID response. And right now, they feel like afterthoughts, to put it politely. And that’s kind of what COVID looks like on the global scale, too.”

Editors Note (added as of 3/1/21): for further reading regarding the connection between finances & Greek life, here are a number of stories the Old Gold & Black have covered in the past –

Affluence Plays A Role In Party Culture – by Lillian Johnson (January 31, 2019)

Class And Status Affect Student Life – by Natalie Alms (November 29, 2018)