College during COVID-19 has been an isolating experience for students as they crave social interaction. To address their struggling mental health and loneliness the College has expanded its podding program this semester. Pods have enabled students to connect with their friends on campus—and in some cases, even make new ones.
In an email to the student body on Feb. 24, President Bradley announced that the College would be moving forward with student podding. Due to the initial uptick in COVID-19 cases during move-in, the planned start date had been postponed from Feb. 17. Though with no documented community spread, the college decided to begin podding. In the email, President Bradley stressed the importance of social interactions in promoting student mental health and welfare, citing the podding system as the College’s approach to a COVID-secure form of socializing.
Pods can be made of up to six students from three different houses to gather without a mask in private rooms, reserved spaces on campus and when eating meals in Gordon Commons or outdoors. Due to the inter-house nature of podding this semester and the high frequency usage of common spaces without full sanitation between each use, dining in common spaces is not yet permitted.
As of now, there are 250 authorized pods on campus, inclusive of more than 1100 students. This is a significant increase from last semester, when 162 pods were approved by House Advisor for Jewett and South Commons and Assistant Director of Residential Education Christina Winnett. These numbers do not include TAs, THs, or Ferry House residences and on-campus apartments because they are automatically considered pods.
To register a pod with the College, one member of the pod has to fill out the names, 999 numbers and housing assignments of the other members and submit the Pod Registration Spring 2021 application (accessible on the Residence housing portal to the right at residentiallife.vassar.edu.) The pod is only permitted to gather after an email of approval has been received.
Winnett is in charge of approving all pods, a lengthy task that involves cross-referencing multiple Google Sheets and emails at the end of every weekday as applications come in. “It’s been really cool to see where friend groups cross over, and which houses pod together the most,” commented Winnett. “It has been a joy to hear a bit more of a buzz in my building and around campus, knowing that people are excited to be connected to each other and have some moments of normalcy sans masks.”
Lucy Gammon ’22 concurred with Winnett. “The quality of life on this campus has drastically improved after being able to pod,” Gammon explains. “The first day that podding was allowed, my friends and I got our approval email and immediately ran to hug each other in the hallway. We all cried, actually, suddenly overwhelmed with how happy we were to be able to actually see one another. I don’t think I realised how lonely the first few weeks here were until that moment.”
Riley Traub ’24 is in a pod of five this semester, including residents of Lathrop, Main and Cushing. Traub stated that she was a little worried about infection rates increasing at the start of the semester, but since the College had deemed it safe she was content to pod across dorms with her friends. “[Living in a single] was really tough early on,” Traub confessed. “And although I want to be inside with more people, having a pod is so nice in comparison to the alternative.”
The College has improved the convenience of enforcing the podding system over the winter break. Whilst last semester, staff could technically consult Winnett to verify pods, or ask students to pull up the pod confirmation email, it was a lengthier process. On the compulsory new CoVerified app, there is a feature that displays pod membership in three simple clicks, streamlining the process.
Currently half of the residential population still do not belong to a pod, an issue that the Vassar Meet-Up Instagram account has tried to resolve through an anonymous podding system. Set up by an anonymous source last semester, the Vassar Meet-Up social media page was created to help students make connections in a low-risk environment.
More than 25 students have signed onto the anonymous Vassar Pod-Up database, with many more joining each week. The signup form includes a section inviting students to detail how comfortable they are with indoor dining, cross-dorm podding and in-person events, in an attempt to match those with similar levels of comfort.
The accessibility of the database has encouraged friendships to flourish between people with different interests, as well as with those who share similar passions and majors. On the database there are students from every residential house, who major in a diverse range of subjects, including Biology, Mathematics, Education, Drama, Film, Psychology, Africana Studies, Political Science and Economics. The anonymous individual that runs Vassar Meet-Up said, “I think that people rely on both risk preference and passions equally, and I think the important thing is that as long as you’re respectful of people’s comfort level and know who you’re dealing with, it should be a great success.”
On its Instagram Story, Vassar Meet-Up catalogued one of their first success stories: “TeaLover1, a political activist and singer, met FunPod3, a group of music and theatre nerds and political junkies, and needless to say it is now fun pod 4.”
In the first week after podding began, the Vassar Together COVID-19 dashboard revealed a slight increase in cases. March 3 recorded the biggest uptick since the beginning of the new phase, with a reported 18 active cases, 15 of which were students and the other three employees. Whilst the numbers of cases at the highest point did not exceed the peak of 36 positive cases recorded this semester, the spike is a sobering reminder of how infectious COVID is. The uptick highlights the importance of remaining vigilant with masking and maintaining six feet whenever possible. Since March 3, the number of student cases have decreased, dropping to ten cases on March 8.
Director of Athletics and Physical Education Michelle Walsh clarified that student-athletes are not exempt from the same podding rules as the rest of the Vassar community. The functional units within the Athletics Department, which place athletes in smaller practice groups, do not permit members any relaxation of masking rules that are experienced in a college-defined pod. Rather, these units are simply a measure for managing contacts in the event of a positive result.
The podding residential application will close March 12, and anyone who wants to register or change their pod afterwards will have to reach out directly to their House Advisor for approval..
While students are still eager to socialize with friends outside of their pod, as Gammon pointed out, “At least podding allows a few exceptions to the awkward COVID shuffle of social life on campus.”