A Force for Good
Updated: May 14
Columbia Covid protocols in the Morningside area surface questions of care for our neighbors.
By Annelie Hyatt
In 1992, students from Columbia University and the Union Theological Seminary approached Broadway Presbyterian Church to ask permission to use the church’s kitchen space as a soup kitchen for Morningside Heights residents. Broadway Presbyterian enthusiastically agreed.
What started as a small group of students and church volunteers serving lunch once a week has since continued, under the leadership of Broadway Presbyterian and Columbia Community Impact, to provide breakfast and lunch on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to almost 6,000 people annually. According to their most recent reports, Broadway Community Lunch (BCL) served 21,621 lunches and 11,000 breakfasts in 2019, in addition to serving 1,215 four-course gourmet meals at Community Table—an event that occurs nine times a year, in which the church is transformed into a banquet hall for its guests to relax and settle down for a good meal.
Kathyrn Graybill, BCL’s development director and a regular volunteer at the soup kitchen, had much to say about the program’s relationship to Columbia. In particular, she noted that Columbia Community Impact provides the majority of their Friday volunteers during the school year, though volunteer participation waned temporarily during the pandemic.
Though she certainly acknowledged the University’s shortcomings, particularly regarding gentrification, Graybill reflected that “Columbia is probably a force for a lot of good in this neighborhood.”
Some would challenge Graybill’s claim, though, as Columbia and Barnard open their doors to students for the spring semester.
Last year, Morningside Heights Community Coalition (MHCC) Executive Committee member Dave Robinson recommended that Columbia keep their students off-campus for the fall semester: “By summer ... the city had brought the [Covid-19] situation somewhat under control. People were very good about masks and social distancing. And a lot of institutions that could result in the spread of the virus were not open. So we were concerned that bringing the students back would change that situation, especially as the virus was rampant in other areas of the country that had not had it as bad in the spring.”
The Coalition lobbied the University extensively, writing letters and garnering press in publications ranging from Gothamist to the Spectator. They also spoke to members of Columbia’s administration and faculty, including epidemiologists who were searching for strategies to mitigate the virus’s spread on campus. While their advocacy largely succeeded in the fall, it fell short of persuading Columbia to close their campuses to students in the spring, despite the rise in cases across the nation.
This semester, Columbia and Barnard have implemented stringent testing programs for their students, faculty, and staff. While similar programs also ran in the fall, they have been adapted to accommodate the recent increase in the on-campus population.
According to Columbia’s Media Relations Director, Caroline Adelman, Columbia Health has conducted 150,248 tests since June 22nd, the results of which are posted weekly on the University’s Covid-19 site. Undergraduate students are assigned days of the week for their testing, while most graduate students, staff, and faculty must participate in a Covid-19 testing program if they access campus at least two days a week. According to the most recent data available on the website, between 4,000 and 7,000 tests are conducted each week, with a positivity rate of 0.41 percent for all of the tests administered over the course of the program. Columbia Health also boasts a robust contact tracing program that notifies people if they were exposed to someone who has been diagnosed with the virus without revealing that person’s identity, and provides them with the resources they need to complete a fourteen-day quarantine after contact.
Columbia is also dedicated to monitoring the conduct of its students on campus. For the spring semester, Columbia only invited seniors and a select number of juniors to campus, while continuing to offer an application process for students in all class years who cited an exceptional need to reside on campus. Upon entering campus, students and staff must sign the Columbia Community Health Compact, which includes a mandate that students fill out an attestation on Columbia’s screening app each day before coming to campus. This protocol essentially affirms that they are not feeling any potential Covid symptoms before they come onto campus. Students and staff are also required to participate in testing and contact tracing when asked, in addition to adhering to government guidelines and standard social distancing practices to prevent the virus’s spread.
It is the responsibility of both students and staff to ensure that their peers observe the Compact. If someone witnesses a Compact violation, Columbia encourages them to submit an online incident report and, if possible, to include the violating student’s UNI, if directly demanding that they stop proves inefficacious.
Columbia’s response to these reports varies depending on the severity and frequency of the violations. A first-time, low-level violation often prompts an educational, non-adversarial reminder of the Compact’s contents, while repeated or more serious abuses can lead to disciplinary warnings or to a temporary restriction from accessing campus, depending on the seriousness of the violation. Additionally, student groups may see their standing within the University impacted if their activities fail to abide by the Compact.
Barnard’s testing program is completely separate from Columbia’s, involving different protocols, different residential policies, and a different screening app. According to the Barnard Director of Media Relations, Kathyrn Gerlach, “The health and safety of the Barnard and surrounding Morningside Heights communities are our top priorities, and we are creating a culture in which everyone at Barnard understands how their individual decisions impact others and act accordingly.”
Prior to the fall semester, Barnard created a dedicated Pandemic Response Team that aimed to “provide expertise and sustained focus on health and safety and support faculty, staff, and students in partnership with other areas within the College and University.” Led by the Deputy Chief of Staff to the President, Cynthia Yang, BC ’02, the team works daily with Barnard Health, Facilities, and Student Life staff to ensure the maintenance of their Covid-19 public health initiatives. The team also conferences regularly with President Beilock and other members of the College’s senior leadership to ensure that Barnard’s operations are adapting in response to the pandemic’s changing conditions.
Students are required to sign up for testing at least twice a week if they want to retain their access to Barnard’s or Columbia’s campuses during the spring semester. Currently, Barnard testing is conducted at the Event Oval Testing Center located on the Barnard campus. After the number of students on campus increased, Barnard shifted to a one hundred percent self-swabbing protocol to increase the efficiency of its operations.
In a further deviation from Columbia’s policies, Barnard was able to accommodate all students who applied for on-campus housing. Gerlach commented on this decision: “Our priority has been to reopen our campus in a safe manner, and this called for de-densifying our residence halls and therefore limiting the number of students living on campus. We initially invited juniors and seniors back to campus, but were able to accommodate additional class years as space allowed.”
Students on campus either reside in single-occupancy rooms with assigned restrooms or in smaller suite-style arrangements. Gerlach cited this more spread-out residential setup as one of the factors in maintaining the extremely low rates of Covid-19 that they had witnessed in their testing pool at the time of our interview.
Some of Barnard’s 2,700 students have chosen to continue their studies remotely. According to Gerlach, about 74 percent of students currently reside in New York City, including 30 percent on campus and 44 percent off campus; 6 percent live in the tri-state area within a commutable distance to campus, and 20 percent are in areas outside of a commutable radius.
In addition to its other response measures, Barnard has altered its ventilation system. The College hired an outside engineering consultant, CFS Facilities Management, to assess its air handling systems and see where upgrades could be made. Some alterations thus far include increasing the proportion of outside air allowed into the space, instituting stand-alone filtration units, and opening windows that had previously been sealed shut in order to increase ventilation.
Despite these efforts, Morningside Heights Community Coalition remains worried about the student presence on campus. This concern is arguably justified—within the past two weeks, numerous Hartley Hall residents tested positive for Covid-19, purportedly by participating in social interactions within the residence hall that violated the Compact. According to Dean Kromm, all Hartley residents would be placed under quarantine if the Covid-19 rates in their residence hall did not decrease.
While much of the city has experienced a rise in Covid-19 cases since the holidays, regardless of proximity to colleges and universities, Robinson remains adamant that curtailing student presence in the area is a necessary precaution.
“The reason that we focused on students returning is that it’s the one thing that was a potential spreader that we could see.” Robinson said. “We have no control, as no one does, over individuals … going to travel to see family or friends over the holidays.” Within Morningside Heights, the influx and outflux of campus figures, particularly students—many of whom move in and out to visit family members and friends and may flout restrictions in the confidence of youthful asymptomacy—seem to add particular entropy to efforts to reduce the spread of the virus.
Most disquieting, though, are the disparities between pandemic protocol and accessibility of testing resources within the University and just beyond it in Morningside Heights. Right before the holidays, many people struggled to secure fast testing before they left to visit their family members.
Robinson faced a similar issue when he visited his daughter during Thanksgiving. While he managed to secure a test on the Saturday prior, he only received his results after the holiday weekend.
“The rapid testing we’ve tried to get, that’s completely inaccessible,” Robinson said. “I mean, you go to the city website and there’s just nothing open, [or] there’s something open on the other end of the city for ten minutes and then it’s taken.”
Robinson suggested that Columbia’s testing facilities open up to Morningside Heights residents in addition to the Columbia community: “There are a lot of people in the Morningside Heights community with mobility issues who can’t get around very well,” he said. While there are some testing sites clustered around certain streets, they generally span at least six streets or a couple of avenues. He went on to state that “having a testing site on this Columbia campus with the resources of one of the great medical institutions in the world would have been very helpful.”
Robinson also called for a revision of Columbia’s accountability policies, saying that the University “is very inwardly focused on how to manage the situation with their own students and the rest of the affiliates. ... Many of their students are living in apartment buildings with the rest of the community,” Robinson said. And although he does not “expect them to have hall monitors in apartment buildings or anything like that,” there remains a worrying uncertainty in the “level of discipline that happens when violations are reported.” Robinson also mentioned that the community has specifically asked Columbia to provide more information to residents about how to report complaints.
With regard to discipline, Robison specifically cited Columbia’s response when 70 MBA students traveled to the Caribbean in a violation of the University’s Covid-19 travel restrictions: “The penalty for the students was simply not being able to go to the campus for a couple of weeks. And, you know, obviously that keeps them in. They’ve just been in a potential spreading situation and their punishment is living among people in the community. … From our point of view, that isn’t really a penalty.” In short, it appears that Columbia’s efforts to mitigate the virus’s spread on campus may threaten our Morningside neighbors with exposure by shunting Compact-breaking and potentially contagious University affiliates into the surrounding areas.
As vaccine distribution ramps up, Columbia’s inclusion of the Morningside Heights community in its pandemic plans remains nebulous. As of the time of this writing, Columbia has committed to ensuring that all eligible faculty, staff, and students get access to the vaccines, although receiving the vaccine is not mandatory. At present, the University remains unsure when these vaccines will become available, but once they do, Columbia affiliates will be notified through their Columbia emails to schedule a vaccination appointment.
According to the University, New York Presbyterian Hospital (NYP) is currently leading vaccination efforts in Morningside Heights. Columbia is providing volunteers to staff the hospital’s vaccine administration site at the Armory. While these seem to be the official plans, it is unclear whether such plans have been communicated to the broader community. Robinson himself seemed unaware of the process.
“As far as I know, there’s no particular plan to vaccinate people in any particular neighborhood,” he said.
The decentralized nature of vaccination has, according to Robinson, made it a process too heavily dependent on individual action: “It’s really been a little bit of a free for all,” Robinson said. “You have to be entrepreneurial to get a vaccine or you have to have someone advocating on your behalf.”
He recalled his childhood, when the polio vaccine came out: “We lined up at elementary school and got this vaccine. It was a sugar cube instead of a shot. It was just one person after another, walking in line and getting the vaccine. And so it didn’t take a lot of initiative on an individual’s part to do it. And this is taking initiative for individuals to do.”
There is a clear, if somewhat troubling, disparity between the experience of those within Columbia’s gates and that of those beyond. At the University, people are encouraged to treat the pandemic as a collective battle to face by adhering to the Compact, abstaining from parties, reporting its violators when necessary, and getting tested at least once a week, even if these aren’t habits they would carry out at home. The wider community, however, must play host to students less-strictly monitored than those in housing, absorb foolhardy Compact violators barred from campus facilities, and navigate reduced access to testing and vaccinations comparatively unaided.
Treasured Morningside Heights programs, in addition to individual residents, have also suffered from the pandemic.
While Broadway Community Lunch’s operations used to prioritize community-building, the pandemic has made these ordinary forms of connection impossible.
According to Graybill, before the pandemic, “people lined up to get their breakfast, but they were served their lunch at their tables and then they could stay inside between breakfast and lunch. And many of them would take showers and socialize, charge their phones, and enjoy not being on the street if they’re homeless or just enjoy the camaraderie.”
Nine times a year, BCL also hosted four-course meals: “We turn the sanctuary of Broadway church into a banquet hall and serve a four course gourmet meal with tablecloths, silverware, and ambient lighting, and usually music and menus so people can actually choose their appetizers and entrees.”
But this structure changed when the pandemic hit. While at first the crisis led to a surge in BCL’s services, the organization has been most shaken by the unprecedented additional expenses that serving during restricted conditions demands:
“When we serve indoors, we serve on plates that get washed, with silverware that gets washed, in soup bowls that get washed,” Graybill said. “Now everything has to be packaged. So there’s a huge packaging expense and disposable utensils expense.” Additionally, much of what used to be communal, like pitchers of juice and pots of coffee and tea, have had to become individualized. The program also received free bagels, bread and pastries from local bakeries, but those donations have been suspended during the pandemic. Due to these factors, Graybill estimates that the program’s weekly expenses rose by $1,300.
Still, the organization’s efforts allow rare moments of community to shine despite the pandemic’s gloom. While Graybill used to volunteer at BCL once a week, since the pandemic she has increased her participation to three times a week.
“If I arrive to go work at the meals program and there’s a group of people we serve sitting on the parkway talking to each other, they’ll yell at me and wave,” Graybill said.
It is the spirit of BCL that might inspire and inform a paradigm shift in Columbia’s approach to public health in Morningside. They relentlessly insist upon inclusion of all members of the community: “One of the main purposes of our community table events is that everybody in the neighborhood is welcome for this free dinner,” Graybill said. “We have people who can fully well afford to go to a restaurant come, because the food is really good and it’s well-served and all that kind of stuff. But they are sitting at the same table with people who need the programming, and they get to know one another.” She continued, “It’s an attempt to, as our mission says, break down the barriers of inequity and privilege, the barriers between people who have and the people who don’t.”
Over the years, Columbia has often been forced to confront the question of what our University owes its surrounding community. Some see the University as inherently and irrevocably harmful to Morningside Heights. Columbia’s reputation as a gentrifying force, hesitant to share resources with the surrounding community, certainly bolsters these claims, especially amid the heightened stresses of the pandemic.
However, BCL’s origins among—and continued support from—student organizers tells a different story of Columbia, one in which the University can be a source of love and kindness in the neighborhood. If our institution is to stand as a force for good in our community, its approach to facilitating community input on and access to essential pandemic services should embody more of the ethos of a Broadway Community Lunch event. Where all are welcome, even from a distance.