The college addresses Gator Pledge and campus quarantine controversy

Link explains her Sept. 12 Instagram post after recent backlash

President Hilary Link attends son’s first varsity soccer game on Sept. 12

The college has implemented new safety protocols, including the Gator Pledge, which made national news after President Hilary Link allegedly violated the protocols by attending a soccer game on Sept. 12.  

The new policies, such as the Gator Pledge, are intended to limit disease exposure for the 2020 fall semester amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everything that (the college) is doing is meant to keep our students, our campus community and the local community as safe as possible while also keeping the campus open,”  Link said. 

The Gator Pledge is Allegheny’s set of prerequisite guidelines for a safe return to campus and was signed by all students upon arrival to campus. The Gator Pledge stipulated that students must practice proper hand-washing, sanitization and social distancing procedures. The pledge also emphasized that gatherings of any size were not permitted. Other protocols specified in the Gator Pledge that any greeting could not involve touching of any kind. The pledge also went on to explain various travel restrictions, including the prohibition of traveling to high-risk areas —  as well as preventing any guests from visiting over the course of the semester. 

The initial quarantine plan specified that all students were to remain on campus until Sept. 15. 

In an email to the campus community on Sept. 10, Link and the Allegheny College Health Agency’s Gabrielle Morrow announced the indefinite extension of campus-wide quarantine following a spike in positive COVID-19 cases on campus. 

“Because (the college) uncovered, during last week’s tests, a cluster of positives among a connected group of students, and because we have understood that this arose due to travel off campus, effective immediately, and until we have evidence through testing that we have contained our cluster situation, we are adding the precaution of extending the on-campus quarantine period until further notice,” Link and Morrow wrote. “This means students may not leave campus for any reason — including, for example, trips to area businesses, jobs, or any other off-campus locations. While this is disappointing for all of us, given the current status of our clustering, we believe that this is the best way to maintain safety for the entire community.”  

The extension of the campus-wide quarantine provoked backlash from the campus community.

“When this outbreak began, I was not comfortable returning home, so I went out on a limb and got a job and an apartment here in town,” Noah Bebee, ’21, said during the campus quarantine. “I have been here the whole summer and I had to quit my job because of the Gator Pledge. I also took the smallest meal plan with the intent to provide for myself like I have been doing all summer, but now I cannot provide for myself and my job is at a loss without me.”

Students working in the Meadville area, like Bebee, were instructed to leave off-campus jobs. 

“I really do appreciate everything that the college has done to keep us safe, but this is not just a health issue at this point, it is also a social issue,” Bebee said.

The Sept. 10 email to the campus community also announced that the college will take a strict approach to handling violations of the Gator Pledge.

“Given the clustering and ongoing reported violations of the Gator Pledge, effective immediately, we will no longer give warnings to those students who are found to have violated the pledge,” Link announced in the Sept. 10 email. “There is simply no room for non-compliance, and our response throughout the semester has been and will continue to be quick and firm, with no room for leniency. (The college) urges families to remind your students to comply; if not, they risk jeopardizing the on-campus experience for every single Allegheny student and our faculty and staff.”

Students also expressed concerns about the inability to purchase medication and groceries during the quarantine. Many students voiced their concerns on Instagram and sent emails to the college. Students reported to have gone off-campus would be subject to Gator Pledge violation procedures. 

“Students’ access to food, medications and resources were absolutely a priority for (the college),” said Vice President of Student Life & Dean of Students April Thompson. “Before coming to campus, we had communicated to students that we would be under quarantine until Sept. 15th, so the vast majority of our students had already planned to have enough resources available to them to get to the 15th. (The college) did make exceptions for students who needed to go off campus for medical appointments and medications so there were exceptions made. (The college) went through (ACHA) and the health agency worked with students to make sure that they followed precautions. It was never such a lockdown that students could not get their medications.”

The quarantine was not intended to prevent students from receiving medications, Thompson clarified. The college made arrangements for medications to be delivered to Winslow Health Center for students to retrieve when required. 

“(The college) has some really great systems with our local prescribers to be able to get medications into the health center so there really was not a reason that students had to go off campus to get medications because (the college) could have them brought (to campus),” Thompson added. “The same with groceries and door dash, yes, (the college) knows that there is a fee and we have been trying to work with students about navigating expenses and navigating the new meal plans, both in terms of new ways to get food and with the accumulating balance instead of a declining balance. (The college) was absolutely working on plans to get food and other (resources) to students and make grocery runs – those were all being put in place in case we had to go past the 15th.”

Students had the opportunity to make an appeal to the college using the form linked in the email to leave campus for necessities, such as doctor visits or prescriptions. The college received hundreds of appeals by students requesting to leave campus before deciding to revoke the campus quarantine extension.

The college provided all of the residence halls with snacks to enable students to have access to food outside of the dining halls. 

“In residence halls right now, (students) will see that (the college) has stocked residence halls with snacks because that was one of the biggest things that students had concerns about,” Thompson said. “Even though (the college) decided to open the quarantine, we are still concerned that students have enough food to eat and that students have enough funds.”

Any student in need of additional financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic can apply for a Gator Success Grant. Thompson advises any student to reach out to their Resident Advisor or members of the faculty to fill out the online form. 

“Your academics need to come first and you should not have to navigate food,” Thompson said. “There are several systems in place and students should talk to their RAs or faculty advisors to fill out the form. (Students) do not need to be hungry, (the college) has options.”

While ACHA announced on Sept. 14 that the campus-wide quarantine was lifted effective 9 a.m. on Sept. 15, the college intends to continue a strict approach to handling Gator Pledge violations.

“(The college) was facing a cluster effect of positive COVID-19 cases as well as several reports of violations of students having parties, events and going into large groups,” Thompson added. “There were way too many of those things happening at that moment. (The college) was at a very serious risk of closing campus and when we went into meetings talking about ‘is this the point where we now have to close and send everybody home to protect the safety of our campus?’ … We thought a strict approach would be one way to keep our campus open.”

On Sept. 12, Link posted an image of her at her son’s first varsity soccer game on Instagram, which received backlash when hundreds of students commented on their dissatisfaction with Link’s post.

“It has been saddening to me to see the very strong backlash towards something that I was in no way trying to hide,” Link said. “I was attending my son’s first ever varsity soccer game fully masked and very physically distanced with about twenty people in an empty football stadium.”

The college has approximately 460 staff and employees in addition to commuter students, who do not live on campus, according to Link.

“I live with my family,” Link said. “I am a mother. I am a mother of three kids and I was following all of (the college’s) regulations for staff and faculty who live off-campus. There was actually nothing wrong with what I was doing. I have said that it was not my best choice to post the photo because I understand how people might see (the image) without understanding the context it was not the right moment because we had just extended the lockdown.”

The Gator Pledge for nonresidential members of the campus community is slightly different in terms that the individuals live in the surrounding area and interact with community members, Link clarified. The same safety measures still exist in terms of masking and social distancing, but the campus-wide quarantine was intended for residential community members. 

“(Upsetting anyone) was in no way my intention,” Link added. “Honestly, I was posting as a working mother, who was following all health and safety guidelines, and I was actually following the pledge that employees and staff that live off campus have agreed to follow.”

Within three hours of the post, students and alumni began expressing their discontent with Link’s actions in the comment section. 

Students’ comments ranged from derogatory comments toward Link to health and safety concerns for the community. In a six-hour span, the post amassed hundreds of remarks. Students called for Link’s resignation and even requested former Allegheny College President James H. Mullen Jr. be reappointed. 

“(The Instagram post) was a little discomforting to see from someone who has been preaching to us this whole time, especially (Sept. 12-13), to stay safe and locked down and be very careful that we are not a part of the problem,” Bebee said. “When (Link) posted the picture, I did not agree with the comments that were put on (the post) (the comments) got pretty out of hand. I do not think she deserved to be bashed like that, but at the same time she should have recognized that she is a part of the gator community and that students on campus have been complaining.”

The image was subsequently removed from Link’s Instagram page. After the image was removed, students began commenting on an earlier post. 

“It was pretty hurtful to be honest and I am just being really honest,” Link said. “I am a very strong leader, but I am a person and I have feelings and nobody wants to go through that … I posted that photo in a moment of pride and I was supporting Allegheny … I will be frank that I did not anticipate (the backlash), but I probably should have because I understand the depth of people’s frustration and anger with what they are living through.” 

Students were upset with the circumstances and Link mentioned that she understood their frustrations. Students even began reporting Link for allegedly violating the Gator Pledge to the college. 

“I say this as a person, I say this as the college president and I say this as a mom, who is watching her three kids: everyone in our campus community, state, country and the world is struggling right now,” Link said. “People are frustrated. (People) are angry with the world … We are all just doing the absolute best that we can to keep the community safe both our campus community and the Meadville community and to keep the campus open because we know that this is a huge privilege to allow students who want to, to be able to live and learn in person on campus.”

In addition to students, parents expressed concern regarding the decision to attend a nonessential outdoor activity, according to the Meadville Tribune. 

“I had not seen any public apology,” Kimberly Cahill said. “(Link) had supposedly apologized to Fox News but not to her own students … I expected some sort of mass email at the very least.” 

Cahill is a mother of an Allegheny student and expressed concerns regarding her student’s inability to acquire necessities such as groceries, medication or toiletries. 

“(President Link’s son’s sports game) was not an essential event,” Cahill said. “(My son) cannot even go get groceries or water.” 

Cahill was recently quoted on a Fox News article covering Link’s Instagram post and alleged violation of the college’s safety protocols.  

“What I am trying to say to all parents who have written (to the college) is that we are all doing the very best that we can in an unprecedented situation,” Thompson said. “(The college) welcomes your feedback and input … We really are listening to the context in which we are making decisions. (The college) has never made decisions like this before — no one has. So we want to hear from families and students to understand the impact of all of our decisions both on health and safety in the moment and in long-term abilities for a student to be able to engage with their academics.”

Despite Link’s Instagram post receiving national attention from Fox News and the Washington Times, the college has done well and is optimistic about the rest of the semester, Link said.

“This entire situation has actually drowned out the successes that all of our students have contributed to and our faculty and staff have worked so hard to maintain, which is that (the college) is open,” Link said. “(The college) is doing really well for being open amidst a global pandemic and we have contained a cluster, tested everyone, and will begin with systematic testing soon.”