As the restriction on leaving campus stays rigid for on-campus students at Vassar, the sense of closed borders has exacerbated the ubiquitous mid-October ennui. While restlessness and exhaustion around this time at college isn’t necessarily a quarantine-related phenomenon, not being allowed to leave campus provides a clear metaphor for this sense of limitation. I’ve started to wonder about the rationale behind this regulation, and if it still needs to be implemented as strictly at this juncture. Considering that Vassar just entered Phase 3 with only two active cases on campus, the risk of contracting the virus on campus is low, and has remained relatively stable for a while. The surrounding Dutchess County also has a positive coronavirus testing rate of 1 percent, which is lower than many other New York counties. Vassar’s COVID-19 situation seems to be under control, and while it’s hard to anticipate the spread of the virus with any certainty, the risk seems to be less alarming than in many other places in the country. Besides, the “closed campus” that the administration defends isn’t quite legitimate––faculty and staff continue to come and go from the campus. If anything, this message erases the realities of much of the workforce at the college, and minimizes the importance of the wider Vassar community’s well-being. At this point in Vassar’s reopening plan, it seems that there are two choices: Either decisively tighten the campus borders and subsequently loosen restrictions within the Vassar bubble, or allow students the freedom to leave campus and continue to enforce the set campus rules.
While I am not a pandemic response expert in any way, and usually try to avoid STEM classes whenever possible, I feel like it’s important to continue questioning the rules that our administration implements in order to at least open a constructive dialogue in the community. The confinement that on-campus students are experiencing right now may not be explicitly destructive, but it’s certainly not without consequences. Personally, I can walk or bike to Sunset Lake or the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve only so many times until I feel like I’ve been travelling endlessly in the same loop. The way we move and interact with our surroundings affects us more than we realize, and with the lack of October break, I don’t feel like the administration has truly addressed this detrimental factor.
While I understand the difficulties of trying to regulate a college population and minimizing the spread of disease––as well as the ethical question of the effects on the surrounding area––I think it’s important to act in accordance with the current situation and adjust rules as necessary. Most everyone within the Vassar bubble follows the rules the college has enforced, and that’s why our reopening has gone so smoothly. However, there should be a happy medium––or at least some conversation concerning one––between being completely cut off from Dutchess County and having total freedom of movement. Being careful to keep the low-risk status of the surrounding area stable should remain at the forefront of our minds, but if the administration trusts students enough to bring them back and believes they will follow the rules on campus, they should trust that students can move beyond the confines of Vassar in a cautious and thoughtful way at this point in the semester.
On the other hand, a more resolute enclosing of the campus––for example, further limiting the amount of people coming and going by shifting away from in-person classes––could allow for more freedom within Vassar. To protect the workers who continue to keep the college running even in these uncertain times, mask-wearing and social-distancing in proper contexts should of course continue to be followed. However, loosening the restrictions on unofficial indoor gatherings would seem reasonable given the amount of time we have essentially been quarantining together. And if the borders of campus were truly closed, the surrounding area of Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County could remain protected.
The precariousness of Vassar’s reopening plan isn’t lost on me. Marist College, just a little ways away from Vassar, recently shut down their campus after an outbreak that resulted from a single off-campus gathering. Certainly, any loosening of measures should be cautious and intentional, not simply with the purpose of returning to more of a normal college life. However, I can’t shake the feeling that we’re following rules made months ago that no longer reflect the situation. I still believe that there’s a thoughtful way to create a less provisional environment on campus, aiming to consider all the existing experiences in the community, even in this undefined period of the pandemic. Even if we direct that thought process to the plan for next semester, it would be a worthwhile endeavor to rethink our approach to reopening at this point.
Of course, the top priority for Vassar’s plan moving forward must be operating in a way that’s open and empathetic to different needs in and outside the community. We’ve been successful so far and the phases should represent that, instead of simply allowing for campus visitors and loosening rules for athletics––factors that don’t affect or benefit most students. Vassar students on campus now find themselves caught in a liminal stage, one that doesn’t seem to reflect the current risk of contracting the virus in our specific setting and circumstances. We should be proud of how well the reopening went, but since it’s been over a month from the initial campus quarantine and the environment continues to be low-risk, we’re past that stage. Living in an in-between space––without the freedom to leave a purely rhetorical “bubble” while also not being able to take advantage of the benefits of the early heavy regulations––doesn’t seem fair or logical considering Vassar’s current situation.