Safety plan addresses COVID-19

By Michael Conlin-Elsen, The Wire (Whitman College)

2019 photo via @sigmachiwhitman Instagram

COVID-19 has presented fraternities and sororities with a unique and difficult set of problems. As they move into the spring semester, some factors affecting them will change, and some will stay the same. To find out more about what their circumstances have looked like, The Wire spoke with members of the Greek community as well as some of the administrative personnel who preside over the Greek system. 

Throughout the fall semester, Sigma Chi has been the only open fraternity house. This has made them a sort of guinea pig for COVID-19 precaution planning and management. As a result, they are a good reference to determine how the rest of the fraternities can and should proceed to reopen.

Sid Shapiro ‘21 has been the president of Sigma Chi since the fall of 2019, though he is soon to be replaced by recent president-elect Nasser Guelleh ‘23. Shapiro detailed how Sig has managed to adapt by changing rules in the house and setting aside space for sick people.

“The basement has six or seven rooms, a bathroom with showers, its own living space and its own exit and entrance. In that way, we can provide more security in the fraternity than, say, in an off-campus house where there’s really no practical way for one person to separate from the rest,” Shapiro said. “In Sig, we’re lucky enough to have the facilities where, if we get sick people, we have a great space for them where they can overcome their illness in a fairly comfortable way.”

To date, Sigma Chi has had zero COVID-19 cases. Shapiro also mentioned that for the spring, the college has agreed to house any members that get sick. That means that Sig doesn’t have to keep the basement reserved as a quarantine space, which allows them to accommodate more live-in members of the fraternity. Through the fall semester, Sig has had only 8 live-in members. In the spring, that number will increase to 16. 

Shapiro also offered perspective on the relationship between Greek life and the administration.

“They [the administration] had us draft a safety plan and submit it to them, but there was very little guidance. It was more of an ethos of, ‘figure it out, and if you don’t get COVID-19, we’ll look the other way, and if you do get COVID-19, there will be big consequences,’” Shapiro said. 

In an email to The Wire, Shapiro clarified his position: “I did not mean that they would knowingly allow gross negligence from Sigma Chi to happen as long as we didn’t get COVID. Instead, I meant that, as long as we didn’t get COVID, they were not proactively investigating our behavior.”

Shapiro feels that the administration has lacked sufficient engagement with Greek organizations.

“I think — not to exaggerate  —that the fraternities have a hard and complicated task ahead of them, which is to house 18 to 20 people in a safe manner, to feed them in a safe manner and to do this all in the time of a pandemic. It’s not an easy task, there are difficult problems and difficult questions, and the college has not been very helpful in really getting to the root of how we should conduct ourselves,” Shapiro said. 

Shapiro offered the view that recent shakeups in the administrative structure have upset the balance of relations between the college and Greek organizations. 

Shapiro says that some of this is due to the departure of Barbara Maxwell. “I believe that with Barbara here, she would have really helped the fraternity leadership create plans that would help the fraternity members be safe, which would help the campus be safe, but without her and her expertise it’s been difficult,” Shapiro said. 

During her long tenure at Whitman, Maxwell was beloved by the Greek community. 

Thomas Witherspoon and Adam Kirtley are the two primary administrative staff who now oversee the operations of Greek life. 

When The Wire reached out to Kirtley for insight on how the administration has been working with Greek organizations, he referred us to a document from Governor Jay Inslee’s office. It essentially lays out a laundry list of precautions and regulations to which fraternities and sororities are subject. Most of the document simply has to do with social-distancing protocols and efforts to “monitor and enforce compliance.” Kirtley also commented on how these regulations will affect fraternity and sorority recruitment.

“Recruitment and socializing next semester will have to be changed to be in alignment with the public health and safety expectations of both the state of Washington and Whitman college. The chapters are exploring virtual and hybrid options,” Kirtley said. 

Thomas Witherspoon did not respond for comment. On Nov. 16, Witherspoon announced that he would not be returning to Whitman for the spring semester. 

Fraternities and sororities were unable to recruit in the Fall. This has caused a great deal of concern among Greek leadership, who worry that, as a result, their organizations might be negatively affected for some time to come. Because of this, there will be extra emphasis on recruitment in the spring. 

Shapiro weighed in on recruitment.

“Recruitment in the spring has become a necessity for two reasons. The first is that the fraternities and the sororities just lost an entire semester of recruitment, and we need to get new members to keep the organizations moving forward culturally and financially,” Shapiro said. 

Shapiro explained that the college also has an interest in Greek recruitment.

“The second thing that’s been interesting is that the college has really been pushing us to do recruitment because, I believe, that they’re worried about keeping their first-year students around and they’re looking for outlets on campus to get those first-years involved,” Shapiro said.

As President of Whitman’s Panhellenic Association, Christa Ullery ‘22 presides over meetings between leaders from all four sororities on campus. She spoke to the issue of recruitment and plans for the spring.

“There has not been formal recruitment, but there has been continuous open bidding (COB)! When we heard we were going to be online, the sororities all voted to move formal recruitment to this spring. That way we could wait for first-years to, hopefully, be on campus and find their place here at Whitman before they find their sorority,” Ullery said.

Ullery emphasized the tentative nature of plans for recruitment.

“Nothing is set in stone quite yet because we have different plans for the possible scenarios. Depending on the state of the world, we will choose the safest and best schedule,” Ullery said. “If we are going to be in person next semester, this might look like online recruitment that has a choice of hybrid activities (with the ones in person being socially distanced, with masks on and always following guidelines). Or it might all be online.”

As to the general state of sorority life since COVID-19 began, Ullery stated that there have still been opportunities for sisters to spend time with each other online.

“I have gotten to keep bonding with my sisters through (Zoom) Halloween fashion shows, (Zoom) chapter, (Zoom) jeopardy, letter writing, social distanced walks with my big and living in the same house as one of my sisters,” Ullery said.

Overall, Ullery feels that a pandemic is no obstacle to the unity and strength of Greek organizations on campus — In fact, she feels that it has provided a useful new angle on the role of Greek life and how it ought to be modified and improved moving forward.

“What has been amazing to see is how this isolation has made Greek Life become even more like a team. As Panhellenic President, I have had the privilege to see our exec teams lean into the unsteady ground that COVID-19 has created,” Ullery said. “Because we aren’t in person we’ve gotten to focus on the bigger questions and think methodologically about Greek Life. We implemented a DEI council that functions very similarly to GAP (but focusing on DEI concerns). We have adjusted our constitutions. We have revamped GAP by readdressing expectations of chapters and by having reps come to Greek Leaders meetings.”

Though the pandemic has physically separated fraternity and sorority brothers and sisters, they seem to be finding ways to maintain the cohesiveness of their organizations. As this new semester begins, the rest of the fraternity houses have tentative plans to open back up and house their members again. It does, however, remain to be seen whether or not the administration will deliver on their plans for campus to open back up. When or if it does, we will see how Greek life manages to stay afloat and sustain the social role it has traditionally played.