So far, Vassar’s administration has much to be proud of in its COVID-19 safety policies for the fall semester. While other schools have struggled to even stick to a plan, let alone execute it successfully, Vassar’s favorable results are hard to argue with. It has been (mostly) smooth sailing from the beginning, with the school’s top-rated COVID dashboard showing just a handful of positive test results over the last month.
You read the headline though, so you know there’s a “but” coming. Looking ahead, the administration’s plan seems to lose much of the common sense that has helped it succeed thus far.
Throughout the early stages of this semester, Vassar’s plan has been two-pronged: Keep the virus off the campus by not allowing students to leave or visitors to enter (essential visitors, aka your UberEats driver, notwithstanding) and prevent outbreaks via social distancing and masks if it does reach campus. However, heading into the second half of this semester, the administration seems to be planning on throwing both these tenets out the window.
From the title of the final on-campus phase, “Phase 3: Structured Group Student Off-Campus Travel Permitted,” it is clear that as soon as it has proven its reliability, the Vassar bubble will be popped. According to the Vassar Together web page, permitted off-campus trips will include class trips and college-sponsored performances. The list of changes scheduled for Phase 3 also features opening the campus grounds to visitors, although buildings will still be off-limits.
Meanwhile, inside the bubble, restrictions are also getting looser, even before the official shift into Phase 3. Starting this week, some varsity athletics teams will be holding full-contact (though still masked) practices. While all student-athletes taking part in full-contact practices will be tested weekly (as opposed to once every 14 days for other students), this will obviously increase the chances of the virus spreading quickly throughout a whole team.
The fact that it’s athletics and not any other campus organization (say, any of Vassar’s multiple dance orgs currently being forced to choreograph socially-distant routines) benefitting from loosened restrictions is likely part of a larger trend of the administration favoring athletes—but that’s not my main issue with these policies. The main issue is that loosening on-campus restrictions while at the same time allowing more off-campus interaction is a recipe for disaster.
If the administration is feeling confident in how the semester has been progressing and wants to move towards relative normalcy on campus, that would be one thing, but they must ensure all organizations and students are given equivalent access to these new freedoms and be more transparent with their implementation (the new policies for varsity practices are nowhere to be found on the Vassar Together webpage). Assuming we can continue to maintain single-digit (or better yet, zero) cases on campus, allowing a bit more freedom in student interaction isn’t a terrible idea on its own.
What is a terrible idea is doing this while also increasing the campus community’s exposure to the outside world. While allowing full-contact sports practices could be fairly safe if Vassar were to remain isolated and have zero active cases, this all falls apart if students are also leaving campus. The same goes for other policies that could increase on-campus transmission rates, like the indoor dining currently scheduled to begin in Phase 3.
By the numbers, Vassar may be lucky to have made it this far even under the stricter Phase 1 and 2 guidelines. If Phase 3 and the on-campus loosened restrictions are both implemented, the college administration will truly be flirting with disaster. All it would take is one student on a Vassar-approved off-campus trip to contract the virus and pass it to an athlete taking part in full-contact practices for the campus to have a full-fledged outbreak on its hands.
Vassar’s decision-makers are trying to have their cake and eat it too. If they want to continue easing restrictions, they must pick one area—off-campus access or on-campus freedom—in which to do so, not both. To continue on the current path risks dire consequences for the entire campus.