Abram Gregory ’21 thought he did everything right.
When Vassar extended its open invitation to students for an in-person fall semester, the senior moved into a nearby apartment to limit his time on campus. He said the only moments he had been within six feet of anyone were with Fiona Walsh ’21, with whom he lives, and four golfers who had cornered him in the Terrace Apartments (TA) parking lot on August 19. Six days later, he tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The prospect of an in-person semester left those starved for an on-campus social life and an in-person education with cautious enthusiasm. When the College transitioned to distance learning on March 12, the United States had logged at least 1,663 novel coronavirus cases. By August 8, the first move-in day, the United States approached 5 million cases and mourned over 160,000 deaths. Prior to students’ return, President Elizabeth Bradley announced that campus would assume the “island model” between August 8 and September 7. Students cannot leave, and the public cannot enter. But as Vassar inches closer to the first day of classes on August 31, many question the College’s enforcement of the purported “island.”
Some students have witnessed their peers strolling back to campus with My Market bags and Crafted Kup coffee in hand, or walking about on nearby streets. “I commute from campus in a route that takes me down Raymond Avenue, and I’ve seen a few dozen familiar Vassar faces on that street,” said Gregory. “While working out in the parking lot of the athletic fields, I saw four students walk onto campus from Hooker Avenue with what looked like takeout.”
Others have observed presumed outside visitors jogging, biking, skateboarding, walking their dogs and strolling arm-in-arm. The individuals, ranging from older couples to unaccompanied children and teens, are sometimes maskless. “I have seen non-Vassar affiliated visitors on campus pretty much every day since I arrived almost 10 days ago,” said Karla Pennetta ’22.
Some students recognize the difficulty of identifying non-members of the campus community. “We’ve got incoming first-years and even returning students who may not be recognized by security,” said Gregory. “There are people who could easily be Poughkeepsie residents mistaken for Vassar faculty and staff, and vice versa.”
Others note the danger of profiling potential visitors based on perceived stereotypes of outside residents.
“Short of asking someone to show me their VCard, I’m not sure how I could non-prejudicially determine that an individual is not a member of the campus community, whether they’re a student, staff member, faculty or a child living on campus,” said Knuckles. To that end, Knuckles proposed that VCard checks at entrances, while not entirely feasible, would eliminate possible discrimination.
Over 44 local and national news outlets covered the campus’ closure and the purported island model prior to students’ arrival, according to Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana. Signs throughout campus and Main Gate security staff present from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. notify community members of the campus’ safety measures. Safety and Security Director Arlene Sabo shared that security now patrols the Sunset Lake hill and Town Houses.
Students acknowledge that outside visitors who do make it onto campus often keep their distance. “Some of these individuals were masked, some not, but all kept their distance from me,” said Frankie Knuckles ’21.
Gregory and Walsh’s experience differs.
After the two had left their jobs at the Athletics and Fitness Center (AFC) on the evening of August 19, Gregory noticed two golfers standing behind the trunk of a parked vehicle beside his car in the TA parking lot. He asked the two to either don masks or social distance so he could enter his car. After they refused, insisting that they did not need masks because they were outside, two other individuals joined them.
An argument ensued as the four inched closer to Gregory, pinning him against his car. After Walsh attempted to confront the group and the exchange continued, the golfers soon entered their vehicles and sped off. Gregory later called Safety and Security, which dispatched personnel to the scene.
Students have called for the closure of the Vassar Golf Course in light of the August 19 incident. However, that power lies with the private manager of the course, PGA professional Rhett Myers. Following the incident, security now patrols the TA parking lot and guides golfers away from the area and to the course’s own parking lot on Wednesdays from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., as several leagues use the course during these hours.
In an August 20 student-wide email, Alamo-Pastrana acknowledged reports of off-campus travel and other reported transgressions of the Community Care Standards. These included walking in dorms without masks, sharing hookahs in small gatherings and allowing unauthorized guests in dorm rooms.
“Thankfully so far we have not had to mete out any sanctions, as most students are observing proper protocols,” said Alamo-Pastrana.
Keira DiGaetano ’23 learned from House Advisor and Assistant Director of Residential Life Lizzie Jáuregui during a house team training that Vassar has no plans to further close the campus.
“This was a very concerning response, so the questions continued, but we did not get any clearer answers or an acknowledgement that this was a real issue we’re currently dealing with. A lot of their answers were ‘save this question for later,’” she said.
Students are encouraged to request the Community Care Team’s (CCT) intervention when Vassar employees, students and faculty flout community care standards. The group consists of students and employees and is chaired by Dean Wendy Maragh Taylor. Anyone can also use the form to alert the College of suspected outside visitors. Rather than a punitive approach to enforcement, the CCT applies bystander intervention tactics and restorative practices.
Securing Vassar’s borders is not an easy task. The open campus has many entrances. Some can be closed off, such as the North and South gates. Others, such as the entryways on Hooker Avenue and Manchester Road, would require obstructions or security posts.
“We’re facing not only a philosophical quandary about community policing, but a logistical nightmare,” Knuckles said. “We could never be a bubble—we are at best a semipermeable membrane.”
Some students believe greater security presence would be most effective—though not entirely fool-proof—given the campus’s landscape, but they also worry if it is the most ethical.
“They might target [people of color] or low-income students and ask them more often to provide proof of being Vassar-affiliated which is not something we want,” Pennetta said. “Campus should feel safe and everyone should feel like they belong.”
Other students feel that the conversation currently values the safety of the Vassar campus community over that of the greater Poughkeepsie area. The town and city reported 48 and 60 active cases, respectively, as of August 26. Of the College’s 18 positive cases since August 8, 11 students remain in isolation. Another 33 students are in self-quarantine after close contact with someone who tested positive.
“The way we enforce these rules is to protect Vassar students, not necessarily to protect the Poughkeepsie community,” said Camilla Meeker ’22. “In reality we pose a larger threat of infection to Poughkeepsie residents if we go off campus than they pose to us.”
National conversations around who is to blame for campus outbreaks are largely split between those critical of reckless college students and those who lay the onus on irresponsible college administrators.
“The logic of blaming administrators for college students who crave social lives does not stand up to scrutiny and, honestly, it’s insulting. College students are not children, though of course we are not always the most realistic and thoughtful adults,” Knuckles said. “The privilege of behaving like a child into your 20s is not a facet of college life that we should be protecting.”
Gregory, however, believes students are not fully culpable, even if they throw large gatherings and leave campus.
“I’d find the Vassar administration responsible for an outbreak and subsequent shutdown,” Gregory said. “If any student, faculty or staff contracted the virus on campus and died, that blood would be on the Vassar Administration’s hands. I hope it doesn’t get to that.”