Nebraska logo emblazoned on a pillar outside the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Union on Friday, September 27, 2019 in Lincoln, Neb. Photo by Colby Becker.

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln spokesperson said Chancellor Ronnie Green had a productive conversation on Aug. 31 with members of the Greek community about the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

But after a night of large gatherings on the final day of sorority recruitment, six Greek chapters were temporarily suspended on Sept. 8 for breaking campus and community COVID-19 policies — less than two weeks after Green’s conversation.

Those six chapters, including Alpha Omicron Pi, Alpha Xi Delta, Delta Gamma, Kappa Alpha Theta, Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Phi Epsilon, are not allowed to host or participate in university activities as an organization until the suspension is lifted. An investigation is being conducted.

Prior to the suspensions, members of the Greek community described varied chapter-specific responses to coronavirus, and some members complained about the lack of specific guidance from campus administrators. 

According to Leigh Thiedeman, director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, she and her staff met with chapter advisors throughout the summer to develop plans to reopen Greek facilities. The office shared a seven-page document with Greek chapters, which provided links to resources, answered questions about the testing process and identified high-touch areas that should be cleaned frequently. It also mandated that each house create a team to help enforce COVID-19 policies.

Some Greek students who spoke to Nebraska News Service found these guidelines helpful, but several others wished they had received more specific instructions beyond the document provided, including one fraternity executive who will be referred to as *Brad to protect his identity. 

“Some [Greek chapters] have been just kind of caught really off guard because they weren’t probably totally prepared,” he said. “If the university would have given us some sort of outline, more people could have been more prepared.”

Hiding cases

Brad said everyone’s likely heard the rumor: some Greek chapters have hid cases.

Erik Goodwin, president of Beta Theta Pi — one of the five Greek houses ordered to quarantine by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department before Green’s Aug. 31 meeting — said there are chapters in the Greek community who have hidden cases.

“It’s the ones that aren’t reporting any of their incidences of symptoms and everything that are contributing to the problem a little bit more,” he said. “I do think it’s happening in the Greek community.” 

Molly Durham, president of the Panhellenic Society, which oversees many sororities on campus, said sororities have been transparent with the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life.

“I do not think that any chapters are trying to avoid the mandatory quarantines because people have come to terms with the fact that it is inevitable at this point,” she said in an email.

When asked what steps are being taken by the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life to ensure Greek chapters are abiding by reporting guidelines, Thiedeman said her staff follows up on concerns shared with them.

“If there are chapter[s] or members who are not following university guidance, we encourage folks to report concerns to [email protected],” she said in an email.

Cameron Collier, the director of alumni relations for UNL fraternity Phi Kappa Theta, speculates that the reason Greek chapters would hide cases can be traced back to an Aug. 20 email sent to students by university administrators. The email explained that students may face expulsion for attending large gatherings under the Student Code of Conduct.

“You’re scaring away the kids from telling the truth,” he said. “It’s doing the opposite of what you want.”

Goodwin appreciated the email, though. He said the messaging helped him “govern a house of 18- to 21-year-olds.” 

“We talked about it, and we came to the understanding of, ‘We don’t even want to be remotely associated with ownership or assembly of some type of large group gathering if that could potentially be the consequence,’” he said.

The thought that doesn’t count

Sam Wiegand, a 21-year-old senior political science major from Omaha, serves as the risk manager for UNL fraternity Phi Kappa Theta. According to Wiegand, UNL told Greek chapter members to place their beds six feet apart, but he had hoped for more help.  

“It’s more like the thought that doesn’t count, but whatever,” he said.

Durham said that she believes the Greek community was adequately prepared for the semester, but added that “there is only so much you can predict.”

“I think the Panhellenic presidents have been so receptive to all of the information being thrown their way and am impressed with the maturity of how they have handled these tough situations so far,” she said.

Goodwin expressed a similar sentiment.

“They’ve been doing pretty good,” he said of administrators. “But it just seems like nobody really understands what’s going on.”

Goodwin said he has made decisions for how to conduct fraternity operations by primarily relying on directed health measures from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. Goodwin also said Zoom discussions with other Greek leaders over the summer helped prepare for the semester.

“We started trying to plan for holding safe events on campus,” he said. “A lot of us came to the stark reality of, ‘We’re not going to be able to really do a lot.’”

Brad said he does not blame the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life for what he finds to be minimal preparation.

“I was always kind of expecting something from further up the line,” he said.

Brad said he wishes the university would have provided resources like a list of cleaning services and protocols. He also wanted more specific guidance to plan for members who test positive and to manage the quarantines of individual members in houses.

“There’s all sorts of contingency planning that we did on a chapter level,” he said. “But it would have been super helpful to have the university informing [us] what to do.”

Thiedeman said her office sends links to the university’s COVID-19 website to chapters placed in quarantine after receiving the order from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.

The meeting

After the health department quarantined five chapters, Green spoke to the entire Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Society communities — though several members wished the meeting had been more productive.

“The chat the university hosted for Greek chapters was not very productive and felt meaningless,” one member of the Greek community said via text under the condition of anonymity, fearing “blowback” against his fraternity by administrators.

The university did not specifically address what topics were covered in the meeting. According to reporting by the Lincoln Journal Star, Green told students during the meeting, “There is no negativity associated with a quarantine.”

Wiegand disagreed.

“They tried to say, ‘Oh, it’s not a negative publicity thing because we don’t think it is,’” Wiegand said. “Public perception is like, ‘Oh, they were dumb. They made a bad decision.’”

Collier also thinks a negative association comes with UNL’s social media posts announcing quarantines.

“We feel like we’re being singled out,” he said before the first non-Greek quarantine was announced on Sept. 2.

Brad said he was initially excited for the meeting with Green.

“I thought we were going to get a lot of answers and a lot of guidance that we had been hoping for,” he said. “Then it turned into a lot of what felt like them just kind of telling us, ‘You know, we’re not trying to bad mouth you.’”

Goodwin had mixed feelings.

“I think it’s always good for our leadership to come down on us and tell us a little bit from their perspective,” he said. “It just kind of felt a little closed off and isolated.”

Following the suspension of the six Greek chapters, Green said in a statement that the university was left with no other choice but to take disciplinary action.

“I am very disappointed in the behavior that has now required us to take these measures,” he said. “This kind of activity places the health of others and the community at risk. It is seriously important that our students adhere to our health protocols and policies.”

A $1,400 ‘Stay-cation’

According to Wiegand, his fraternity’s finances took a hit after providing housing refunds to members following the university shutdown in March. 

Several chapters’ finances may continue to struggle if chapter members contract the virus.

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Laurie Bellows acknowledged during the private Greek community Zoom meeting that isolation in the former Neihardt Residential Center costs $100 per day. This fee pays for linens and food, among other things, she said.

“You take a $1,400 ‘stay-cation’ at Neihardt,” Wiegand said of the 14-day isolation period.

Collier also expressed reservations toward the cost.

“It’s the university’s decision that we’re going back on campus,” he said. “They should be able to accommodate.”

Preventing the apocalypse

Greek chapters like Phi Kappa Theta have decided to take matters into their own hands to prevent what Wiegand referred to as “the apocalypse scenario:” mandatory quarantine.

According to Wiegand, Phi Kappa Theta started the school year with minimal procedures set in place by their housing corporation, a group of fraternity leaders and community stakeholders who help manage the house. He said masks were encouraged, members were asked to limit guest attendance and pre-packaged meals were being served with disposable dinnerware.

Following a fraternity member’s potential exposure to COVID-19, Wiegand said he and others realized they needed to incorporate more restrictions. So, he established a committee to make plans going forward.

The committee clarified the mask mandate in the house, banned most use of their elevator and implemented a contact tracing regimen in case a member tests positive. Each room has a paper pinned next to its door, and members track the time they spend in each room.

According to Collier, the house also has hand sanitizer in many places and utilizes its different staircases for different traffic flow.

Wiegand feels confident about the steps they have taken.

“We’ve put enough precautions in place to probably catch it before it’s like a fire,” Wiegand said.

Other fraternities and sororities have taken other precautions to prevent spread of the coronavirus. But with the future of the pandemic uncertain, nobody knows what to expect. 

Brad said he understands the difficulty of the current situation from both the students’ and administration’s perspectives. He said “there’s no right answer to anything.”

“Part of me is upset,” he said. “The other part of me is also understanding that there’s just a lot of things that are going to happen this year that we’re just gonna have to roll with.”

*Brad is a pseudonym given by Nebraska News Service to protect the source’s identity because he spoke to the journalist under the condition of remaining anonymous.

I am a senior political science and journalism double major from Beloit, Kansas. I am passionate about educational access, and I enjoy covering the education sector. After completing my undergraduate degrees, I plan on attending law school. Find me on Twitter @JaredPaulLong.