Vassar community reflects on an unprecedented semester

Courtesy of Vassar College via VassarTogether COVID-19 Dashboard

When President Bradley shared in early summer that all students would be welcomed back to campus in the fall, the news elicited a range of emotions. While many students were excited to return to campus after months of isolation, critics were dubious that Vassar could pull off a safe return to Poughkeepsie. Peer institutions, such as Bowdoin College and Kenyon College, opted to only allow first-years on campus to lower population density. Pomona College and Smith College did not welcome any students back to campus.

While this semester was challenging and unprecedented, the Vassar community was able to avoid large COVID-19 outbreaks on campus. With a few days left before the majority of students leave campus, the percentage of positive test results is .11 percent, which is noticeably lower than both the national rate of infection and the rate of infection in Dutchess County, which is 2.4 percent. 

Success in limiting the spread of COVID-19 on college campuses has not been universal. According to a New York Times survey, there have been over 252,000 cases and at least 80 deaths at 1,700 American colleges and universities. Marist College, also in Poughkeepsie, had to shift into a soft lockdown twice this semester as a result of large COVID-19 outbreaks. The first pause in October was the result of an off-campus party that led to 26 cases on campus. The college went on a second pause in early November after their COVID-19 dashboard showed 33 cases involving Marist students. 

While 41 students tested positive for COVID-19 this semester, there was no community spread and Vassar never had to go into any form of lockdown. “That we have been fortunate to keep our COVID-19 cases relatively low is a tribute to everyone on campus – students, faculty and employees – who followed the College’s protocols, and moreover took to heart that ‘We precedes me,’” commented President Elizabeth Bradley in a written statement for this article. She also emphasized the important role of the VassarTogether team. Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana concurred, explaining, “When we began this semester, we had no idea how successful any of the measures we put in place might be, but we are quite thankful that we have been able to keep the on-campus incidence of COVID-19 as low as we have.” 

According to students and administrators, Vassar’s student culture played a part in preventing COVID-19 spikes. Lucy Kuhn ’22 explained that since much of Vassar’s social life and extracurricular activities are on campus, shifting to an island model in itself was not a huge change in students’ day to day lives. Inside campus boundaries, many students felt a responsibility to their peers to follow social distancing guidelines. “As a small school, I think accountability is a lot more real when you know the majority of the community on a personal level,” explained Kuhn. 

Safety measures such as mask wearing, social distancing and following testing schedules became part of everyday life this semester. For Alamo-Pastrana and other college administrators, it was important to design a system of accountability for students that was not punitive and left room for the nuances in these unprecedented expectations. “Our model of using a Community Care Team to work with people if they did not follow protocols has as its base education and restoration, rather than punishment or ‘enforcement,’” Alamo-Pastrana shared. 

The CCT promotes student accountability for not following COVID-19 guidelines through restorative justice measures and providing students with resources. Kuhn, who is a CCT member, explained that she and other students respond to and handle reports that come in of students breaking social distancing protocols. CCT members follow a process of educational conversations and “carefrontations” to address the reported situation. “I think restorative justice does work,” Kuhn explained. “Every conversation I had with people who were reported by their peers was very kind and productive,” she added. Kuhn clarified that CCT does not handle incidents of obvious disregard for safety, which would go through student conduct. 

As COVID-19 cases are on the rise both in Dutchess County and nationally, administrators and students understand that keeping campus safe takes both meticulous planning and flexibility to shift protocols as the situation changes. Alamo-Pastrana explained that Vassar’s Community Care standards are guided by public health protocols. As for next semester, no shifts in policy have been decided on. “It is too soon to say whether there will be changes [in Vassar’s safety guidelines] based on those considerations. Among the things we are considering is podding earlier, potentially allowing cross-dorm podding as well as allowing indoor dining earlier in the semester,” Alamo-Pastrana said. 

As the United States and much of the world heads into a winter that could see the worst of this pandemic, news about successful preliminary vaccine trials signals a possible end in sight. For the Vassar community, an effective and available vaccine would be needed to end social distancing measures. Yet scientists have warned that a vaccine is not necessarily a silver bullet. These preliminary results of vaccine trials so far do not guarantee an effective vaccine. Even once a vaccine is approved, it will take months to vaccinate the millions of people needed to establish herd immunity. 

“It is too soon to speculate how the development of a vaccine would affect our protocols on campus,” commented Bradley. “We will rely on science and the guidance of public health experts as we make those decisions,” she added. Bradley explained that a vaccine’s accessibility, effectiveness and the length of time for which it provides immunity are all factors that must be considered when deciding college-wide policy implications. She also emphasized that the ending of social distancing measures will likely be gradual. 

While the road ahead feels long and uncertain for many, the Vassar community has shown it has the stamina to sustain social distancing well enough to ensure a safe campus. “If not ‘best case’ scenario then certainly this semester has been a ‘very good case,’” acknowledged Alamo-Pastrana. 

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