EdBoard: CMU needs more safe outdoor spaces

Safe outdoor spaces can help alleviate student loneliness during the pandemic. (credit: Stacey Cho/Art Editor ) Safe outdoor spaces can help alleviate student loneliness during the pandemic. (credit: Stacey Cho/Art Editor )
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With the sun beginning to peak out of the relentless, grey Pittsburgh clouds and spring right around the corner, the only thing missing is the buzz of students around campus. And as the temperature begins to increase, it is time for Carnegie Mellon University to start facilitating outdoor activities so students can safely engage with the campus and bring some excitement and energy back to the school.

Historically, March has been the month of constant bustling as students rush to finish not only their classwork but also their booths and buggies. But this year, there is a noticeable and significant loss of anticipation over Virtual Carnival that Carnegie Mellon could help mitigate through a larger push for in-person activities or physical spaces for students.

However, the number of COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County, where Carnegie Mellon University is located, has steadily remained above 1,000 in the past few weeks, according to the official Allegheny County website. With this in mind, it is imperative that the school continues to prioritize the safety of our community while also creating opportunities for safe socialization.

“I think that students are craving safe social interaction,” said Elizabeth Koch, the associate director of student leadership, involvement, and civic engagement (SLICE). “They genuinely want to find ways to abide by the campus policies in ways that allow them to connect with their friends and organization members."

But students currently have very limited access to resources or activities on the Carnegie Mellon campus. And starting from the beginning of the fall semester, there have been approximately 70 reports of unsafe gatherings, said Koch. These gatherings range from small dinner groups that break social distancing protocols to larger parties at off-campus locations.

Students attending these gatherings have received reprimands like writing letters of reflection and disciplinary probation. Punishing members of the Carnegie Mellon community who flout COVID-19 restrictions is fair and necessary. However, the university should offer ways for students to be able to meet and interact safely as a way to disincentivize them from breaking the rules when they get lonely.

“Having the tables and tents outdoors in the fall semester provided some of that structure,” Koch said. “But there is always opportunity to build upon those kinds of resources to make them more appealing to a broader array of students and potential activities.”

Some ideas to safely populate the campus would be to rent out free picnic blankets, so students can sit outside on the green grass with people in their own pod. Another idea would be to put overheads over the tables on the Cut so students can enjoy the fresh air without being blinded by the sun or drenched by the rain. SLICE and the Activities Board have also proposed an outdoor stage to help performance-based student activities that are having trouble converting to an online model.

“We saw an opportunity for the university and student government to invest in an outdoor performance venue that would be predominantly self-service with a socially-distanced audience set up,” Koch said. “In the fall we did a survey of 50 organizations that we thought could benefit, and their enthusiasm sent us in the direction of creating a formal proposal.”

We acknowledge all of the hard work from SLICE, the Activities Board, and other groups that have been involved in improving the student experience during this pandemic, but, as Koch mentioned, there is always room for improvement.