An Interview with UofSC's COVID-19 Messenger

A concerned student's plea before things get worse. Much worse.


Photo provided by Ward Jolles, SGTV News 4

1,053 UofSC students and employees made up the total number of active COVID-19 cases on August 30. Nobody knew that in the following days, UofSC ‘s handling of the COVID-19 virus would make The New York Time’s top stories, be featured on CNN’s air waves, and talked about nationally as having one of the highest student rates of COVID-19. 

Although no one could know what was coming, there was still a warning.

The morning of Aug. 31, students and faculty discovered, “MR. CASLEN SHUT IT DOWN 600+ SICK, ?? MUST DIE??” written across the Russell House Student Union.

It’s not every semester that students are passionate enough to take illegal action to voice their concerns with the university, but this is not a typical semester. After seeing a photo of the writing, I knew I had to hear the culprit’s thoughts, so I put out a tweet.

A day later, I get a push notification: Is this Mark Maddaloni of Garnet & Black? After initial introductions and making sure the alleged perpetrator could provide evidence of his identity, we dove into some questions.

He identified himself as a student, saying he was motivated to take action after what he felt were empty and dismissive comments from UofSC president, Bob Caslen. “I wanted to send a message and I wanted people to see it and for the school to have to deal with it in some way," he told me. "I expected them not to address it directly because I figured they’d see that as legitimizing the method," he added. He hadn’t previously been in contact with university officials to share his thoughts but had seen students reach out via the university’s town halls. “Any serious concerns just get wiped away with empty statements like ‘we’re aware of the risks and have measures in place to mitigate them’ as if the students saying they don’t want to get really sick (or die) doesn’t matter to them… I wanted to make some noise somewhere they couldn’t dismiss it.”

Although Caslen did see the grafitti, he shared no comment with the student body. UofSC indirectly responded with a tweet addressing the student body later that night.

The student said he had no choice but to enroll this semester or lose his scholarships. "I’m starting to get a little worried because there are kids in some of my classes who had to switch online because they got infected," he said. 

When asked about the student's responsibility to socially distance and take preventive measures, he says he doesn't necessarily think students are to blame. “They never would have started if the school hadn’t insisted on doing face-to-face instruction,” he says, commenting on the outbreak of parties at student hangouts like Palmetto Compress Apartments and TLC Sports Bar & Grill. “You can’t blame them for doing what you knew they would do. Caslen wants the school to have its cake and eat it too.”

Caslen, in partnership with UofSC's Student Government, has been encouraging students to stay informed and committed to keeping the community safe through the #IPledgeColumbia campaign, a university initiative to keep students informed about the consequences of their behavior for the community. When asked about the effectiveness of the campaign, the student said he had to look up the campaign just to talk about it. "I don't think it's being spread around the right way. Maybe it should have been required to take the pledge in some way before coming back to classes."

"It seems too vague and abstract to be any good, which makes sense because COVID isn't something any one person can really do something about," he said. Aside from getting a COVID-19 test, the university did not require students to do any research or pledge to be held accountable for their actions before coming back on campus. "We didn't have to go to any health and safety workshops or even sign forms about what we need to do to keep things safe. It's just assumed that they'll have heard what they need to do and take it seriously as the school needs them to," he said. "The school told them they could come back and the only conditions were that there would be a vague sense of danger but no serious punishments or anything."

UofSC's Office of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity is monitoring reports of students and student organizations who aren't complying with public health directions, but the consequences are still an unknown to the students. The OSCAI website outlines common consequences for alcohol and drug violations, but no particular consequences for other reports except with the condition that all reported students must attend a virtual meeting with a conduct officer.

While the student recognizes the benefit that a conduct system would create, he says he doesn't know how helpful it is if consequences only come after an incident occurs. “If they have it, they already spread it when they broke the rules and filing out some form or whatever isn’t gonna undo that," he said. When asked about what he thinks the university could to to improve the situation and encourage students to wear masks, he admitted: “I don’t want to say someone should stand out there and yell at people to spread out but I can’t think of anything easier.” 

When asked if there was anything else he wanted to share with the students, he simply said: “I hope everybody else can stay safe”

Editor's note: this article has been revised on 9/11/2020 at 4:33PM EST to better reflect Garnet & Black's editorial standards, including taking out the author's comments, clarifying the COVID-19 cases reported the morning the graffiti appeared, and removing false statements about the pay and housing accommodations made for students and employees in the university's closure, as well as to correct spelling and grammar.

Editor's note on anonymity: in the interest of protecting the student's identity and safety, G&B shall not identify the student who reached out and claimed responsibility for painting the message on Russell House. After comparing samples of the material used and talking over-the-phone, we believed the student credible, particularly with recognizing that the ability to be featured in G&B is not exclusive

G&B reached out to UofSC PD to confirm the substance used and is awaiting an answer.

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