Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 11, 2020 / 03:29 am (CNA).- Benedictine College had a problem.
After students returned to campus for the fall semester, 38 of them tested positive for COVID-19. And while none of the students who tested positive had serious symptoms or required hospitalization, Atchison County, Kansas, where Benedictine College is located, was spooked.
So, out of a sense of desperation, Benedictine College President Stephen Minnis told his students to pray and fast for the health of the college from August 28 until September 8, the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary. The college had already made adjustments, at the behest of the county, to its existing coronavirus mitigation protocols.
“We had a commitment to be open in a safe and healthy environment, but with dynamic campus life, including athletics, with access to a strong faith program–including the sacraments–with in-person classes, all with the intention to stay open and true to our mission,” Minnis told CNA in an interview on September 9.
Minnis told CNA that bringing the students back on campus was necessary for fulfilling the college’s mission statement: “to educate within a community of faith and scholarship.”
“We believe strongly that COVID has attacked our mission directly,” said Minnis. “It’s an attack on our community by forcing our students to stay in their homes or in their dorm rooms and away from people. Humans are social beings, and if you take that away from them, they can’t be fully alive.”
The effects of the pandemic also attacked the “faith” and “scholarship” aspects of the college’s mission, with public Masses being suspended, and students sent home away from campus last semester.
“We had students that came back to Benedictine and had not gone to Mass since March, because of where they were living,” Minnis said. “We wanted to provide a really strong faith experience for them.”
While things were improving on the health front–no Benedictine student has been hospitalized with coronavirus, and the number of active cases continues to drop–this was not the case on the county level. According to local media, the county had four recorded cases of COVID-19 two weeks before school started, but that number had leapt to more than 200 once the students returned.
On September 2, Atchison County announced that all 2,000 college students would be required to isolate in their rooms for two weeks to stop the spread of coronavirus. The order, which was given without “any kind of warning” to Benedictine College, was to go into effect at midnight the next day. Students would be required to stay in their dorm rooms or homes and leave only for meals.
This meant no Mass, no athletics, no going for a walk around outside, no in-person classes. Students living off-campus would not be permitted to even go to the grocery store during that two-week period.
Minnis did not want to subject his students to a strict isolation, nor did he want to tell students they could not go to Mass. The school managed to convince the county to hold off for increased negotiations.
“And the County Commission asked the parties not to have this order go into effect, but ask the parties to begin negotiating and see if there could be common ground,” said Minnis.
Those negotiations began September 3. That evening, Benedictine students took it upon themselves to organize a masked, socially-distant rosary to pray for their school community. Minnis told CNA that he believes the same time the Rosary began, he was told that there would be “no chance” the county would budge on their order to require students to be isolated in their rooms.
Minnis decided to fast starting at the Thursday evening meeting with the county’s negotiation team. The negotiations that night were not ideal, and it did not seem as though Atchison County would change their minds.
But the following morning at 8:15 a.m., when the negotiations started again, he found “a completely different atmosphere” than the one from the previous night.
“There was an atmosphere of unity, not of division,” said Minnis. Officials were now “trying to get this resolved, not trying to punish anyone.”
An agreement was reached on Friday that appeased both the county and the school.
The new agreement, which is titled “Atchison and Benedictine: Stronger Together” was announced in a press release on September 4. It allows for greater movement on campus for students, while seeking to protect the broader community.
The agreement prohibits students living on campus from leaving campus, except for work, essential activities, or for academic requirements, and allows for students living off-campus to come on campus for “authorized athletic practices, religious services, work study, labs, or other necessary academic purposes.”
“By the end of Friday, we had an agreement and, and this agreement allowed us in-person classes. It allows our students to be out and still socialize, still exercise, still go to Mass,” said Minnis. He said the county had a “complete turnaround.”
“And there's no question about it,” said Minnis. “It was Our Lady that did that.”