“We” precedes “me”—but only for high-risk students

Courtesy of Vassar College via VassarTogether.

Vassar College announced plans last week to resume intercollegiate athletic competition and other supervised off-campus travel starting on March 22. A now-closed Change.org petition called for the College to reevaluate this position due to concerns that activities off-campus could worsen COVID-19 community spread. After all, the student body shares classroom, dining, bathroom, and living spaces, so students who feel unduly endangered by this policy can’t eliminate contact with peers who engage in off-campus activities. While some students would benefit from the change, all students would bear the risk.

But for one subset of students—those at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 or experiencing severe symptoms—this danger has underwritten our time on campus for this entire academic year (for some of us, since the very onset of the pandemic). Put simply, the regulations meant to keep people safe were not made with us in mind. 

High-risk students have uniquely little leeway for incidents of COVID-19 exposure. By way of example, consider the three authors of this piece in a common on-campus scenario. Standing too close or removing your mask for a quick hit of coffee near Jessica, who has no known comorbidities, is likely inconsequential for her because these activities expel only a small quantity of respiratory particles. In the same situation, Frankie, who has Type 1 diabetes and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, is just as likely to be infected as Jessica, but roughly three times more likely to have a severe case or to develop potentially deadly conditions (diabetic ketoacidosis or severe inflammation, to name a few). Susannah, who uses high-dose immunosuppressants for lupus treatment, can become infected (by any illness) at lower levels of exposure, and faces triple the risk of a severe case of COVID-19. Clearly, we authors are dealing with different degrees of danger from seemingly small levels of exposure. 

When our health hinges on the behavior of those around us, efforts to foster a “reasonable” social and academic life for the student body writ large—such as opening the campus to indoor dining, podding, off-campus exercise and supervised travel—demonstrate that these policies assume a student for whom these activities are not perceived as a significant risk, like Jessica. (Note, however, that this calculated risk is still gambling with a deadly virus that has taken more than 500,000 lives in the U.S. alone.) President Elizabeth Bradley tweeted that plans for off-campus excursions, like our prior protocols, are “guided by the science.” But these policies operate under an unsound assumption that imperfections pose no peril. The psychological and (potentially) physical toll of these risks falls not only on the students choosing them, but on the students who must share vital public and private spaces with their peers—including your Frankies and Susannahs. 

Like science-based protocols, our existing “carefrontation” model is ideal in the abstract. The concept of “carefronting” was developed as a community practice of transformative justice, operating against strictly disciplinary systems. Students accused of noncompliance are not immediately subject to punitive measures—such zero-tolerance policies would reinstantiate carcerality, an oppressive logic against which we should organize. Instead, members of the Community Care Team (CCT) generally engage a student who is implicated in a risky behavior with an informative discussion and facilitate a restorative conversation among the parties involved. In instances of repeated offense or activities that pose significant risk of COVID spread, such as hosting a party, punitive measures have included a 14-day quarantine or removal from campus to prevent further community spread. 

Though this system is intended to push against disciplinary models that perpetuate, rather than diminish, harms, it collapses when students fail to engage in these practices in good faith. If students feel no need to hold themselves accountable to their community, the weight of maintaining community health is no longer an equally distributed burden: The onus of preserving COVID-safety falls squarely on the students with the greatest stake in preventing community spread—those at the greatest risk. 

When not everyone invests in these community practices, the very model of carefrontation can pose significant harm to the carefront-er. An easy example would be asking a student who is eating in the Retreat—a space that is not open to indoor dining—to take it outside. The student who is put at risk by the behavior, the one who is still masked, is supposed to converse with an unmasked student, risking their own health, to alter the other student’s behavior (which the unmasked student is likely already aware breaches community norms). If the masked student is afraid to carefront for health reasons or because they do not want to monitor their peers, they might simply leave the premises, modifying their behavior to accommodate students who are not in compliance. When our peers engage in such behavior in public spaces, they are telling high-risk students who bear a disproportionate burden that their needs are inconsequential. When the College expects us to “carefront” these situations, they are telling us to put our lives at risk to suggest compliance to others.

The effect of this imbalance is that students who fear for their safety are either stifled by ableist structures, where they are expected to accommodate able-bodied peers, or alternatively, cornered into policing their peers. Social media activity—such as posts criticizing “snitches” on the now-deleted Vassar Memes page—underscores the social ostracization that occurs from the carefrontation model.

The campus culture that has arisen, in which some students are buzzkills and others view COVID protocols as a tiresome inconvenience, does not form the basis for a strong mutual care network. Instead, it further isolates and disproportionately harms chronically ill and disabled students. This deployment of “harm reduction” vernacular treats all needs in our community as equally weighted. While some of these concerns involve activities that would be fun and beneficial for participants—and social activities are indeed crucial to mental and emotional wellbeing—some of these concerns simply aren’t on a par with other students’ access to an education, and their lives. 

The issue here is not with the CCT system. It’s that members of our community are not investing in the ethos of the system, and therefore do not experience the norms as a positive reason to change their behaviors. Utilizing an alternative system, particularly one that jumps to punitive measures, would fail to address this lack of commitment and introduce additional negative effects. Such a system would increase secrecy and distrust, disrupt opportunities for harm-reduction, harm individuals who are accused of noncompliance and further deter confrontation out of concern about the punishment it could inflict on implicated peers. 

Due to the lack of an immediate solution to the perils high-risk students face on campus, you might wonder, as many of our peers openly and publicly have: Why bother? Why tighten things for able-bodied students for the benefit of a small subset? Why come here if you’re so afraid? The question itself betrays a belief that high-risk students are inconvenient for the community as a whole, and therefore less deserving of this space. The answers to why we are here are manifold: Internet access, an education, food security, reliable housing, a safe place to live and that other places are even less COVID-safe than Vassar’s campus. We’re inconvenient, but we’d like to live.

Most important, there are immediate solutions. The answer is that we shouldn’t be put in situations in which we must bear the risks of confrontation or be corralled away. This relies less on the College tightening up regulations on off-campus travel (though they still should), and more on the campus community at large recognizing that their personal relationships, behaviors and risks are no longer just their own. The protections we have do little to protect high-risk students if peers bring off-campus clandestine romances into the public showers, remove masks to sip Crafted in the testing line or ignore the directive to double-mask.

No doubt, our requested behavior changes are inconvenient—we want to caffeine-load on double-shot macchiatos in class as much as you do. But it’s also inconvenient for us to risk our health to remind you about what you already know and have expressly chosen not to care about.

The ideal outcome for high-risk students would be a shift in the campus discourse in the direction of true community care: Students who are currently engaging in risky practices would alter those behaviors for the good of their peers who stand most to suffer as a result of their actions. The practical evidence does not point in that direction. Due to a confluence of factors perhaps including altered testing regimens, there have already been more student COVID cases in the first few weeks of the spring semester than there were in the fall semester as a whole. More virulent strains have been found in the Hudson Valley. Also throughout the region, young people with comorbidities and underlying conditions continue to experience severely limited access to vaccination sites. Ongoing pressure on the College to open up more risky behaviors to the student body will yield even greater isolation for high-risk students as those around us engage in College-sanctioned behaviors that, nevertheless, could have deadly consequences. 

When we’re envisioning a structure of community care, it should address the students who are most at risk of harm—not make life rosy for the dominant group and terrifying for the rest. For high-risk students, the motto of the community care model, “we precedes me,” has a sinister valence. It means that the comfort and convenience of the “average risk” student precedes our comfort, our access to educational resources, and our lives. 

3 Comments

  1. The new policy strikes me as yet another example of sports-worship blinding Vassar to its own core values.

  2. It must be a terrible burden to live in abject fear of a virus that has a mortality rate of 0.0013% in U.S. residents 21 and younger.

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