Donald Trump has failed to protect me and other students from COVID-19

September 3, 2020, 11:00 PM UTC
college students studying
Students wearing protective masks study at the Thompson Library on the first day of classes at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, on Aug. 25, 2020. Schools are still vulnerable to COVID-19 because of President Trump's failed leadership, writes University of Notre Dame law student Rachel Palermo.
Ty Wright—Getty Images

As a law student at the University of Notre Dame, I’ve seen firsthand the struggle to try to make in-person classes work. Since returning to campus four weeks ago, 599 members of our community have already tested positive for COVID-19. That’s unacceptable. 

Notre Dame was one of the first universities to announce a robust plan for in-person learning. The institution made significant investments to find a way to make it safe to be here. Our campus rules and procedures mandate masks inside buildings, seat us six feet apart in class, provide quarantine housing, offer ample sanitizer and disinfectant supplies, and facilitate contact tracing. 

But it’s not enough. 

The fact of the matter is that colleges and universities were set up to fail. Donald Trump’s inaction on the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for students, creating ripple effects on our professional careers and personal lives that will last for decades. Nearly 1,000 Americans are dying a day, but Trump dismissed the death toll by saying, “It is what it is.

The lack of national leadership has worsened the effects of this pandemic. When most schools converted to virtual learning in March, Trump and his administration had months to make a plan for the fall semester. Instead, Trump tried to absolve himself of any responsibility by downplaying the virus. His team sabotaged any efforts by public health experts to raise awareness about the crisis. Trump waited until there were 135,000 COVID-19 deaths before doing the bare minimum of simply wearing a mask in public. (And recently he’s stopped wearing one again.) On top of that, his campaign regularly flouts social distancing guidelines—just take a look at the Republican National Convention event last week at the White House.

It’s easy to throw blame at university leaders and students for the chaos that schools have already experienced this year. In many cases, it’s at least partially warranted. College administrators have enacted inadequate protocols that have jeopardized the safety of their communities. To make the problem worse, some students have demonstrated a lack of personal responsibility. Students have recklessly ignored social distancing rules by hosting and attending large gatherings without masks. 

However, even if protocols were enhanced and students were more responsible, the virus would infiltrate schools. At Notre Dame, we have already seen that a few isolated cases can reach 600 very quickly, due to the alarming way the coronavirus spreads. The idea that a school can contain the virus while it’s running rampant across the country is unrealistic. Schools will be unable to safely operate in person until we have competent leadership in the White House. 

We need a President who will lead in the face of crisis, rather than cower at the prospect of assuming responsibility. Trump’s inaction has taken away the ability of millions of students across the country to safely learn. It’s been over six months. Where is Trump’s plan?

To students across the nation, this virus is personal. We will be entering the job market after experiencing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Many of us have watched our loved ones suffer through the virus, and some of us have even learned how to cope with loss if they didn’t survive.

The choice couldn’t be more clear: Students need Joe Biden. From the beginning, Biden has led by example. He immediately created a sensible plan to combat the coronavirus, developing a national testing strategy and calling for a universal mask mandate. As our President, Biden will rely on science and experts to guide his coronavirus response, in stark contrast to Trump. (I’m a volunteer for the Biden campaign, but I’m writing this article independently as a private citizen.)

We deserve a President with a proven track record of leadership. Donald Trump had his chance, and he failed to meet the moment every time. He has had a painstakingly long amount of time to show leadership in the face of this pandemic. At every point of his presidency, Trump has put political considerations ahead of the health and safety of the people he was elected to serve. Our President should be a role model, but Trump’s behavior falls far from that.

Students across the country are watching our nation’s leaders. And we will take our frustrations straight to the ballot box to vote Donald Trump out of the White House in November. I look forward to the day when students will finally be able to safely return to our classrooms after the Biden-Harris administration cleans up Trump’s mess. 

Rachel Palermo is a third-year law student at Notre Dame Law School. She previously served as the assistant press secretary and director of women’s media at the Democratic National Committee.

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