Last week Vassar dropped a bombshell announcement: Supervised off-campus travel will be allowed this spring. To put it lightly, this news was received with mixed reactions. Some were thrilled at the prospect of getting some semblance of their old lives back, while others were apprehensive about the idea of students interacting with people outside of the Vassar bubble. The debate on campus is already starting to get heated and it seems that neither side feels like the other understands or even cares about their point of view.
Before I dive into this, I want to acknowledge that we are all under a lot of stress from this pandemic and there is well-founded anxiety surrounding any decision involving COVID-19. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: our safety and our normal lives back. Additionally, while I am attempting to come at this situation objectively, I should point out that I am a varsity athlete (I run for Vassar’s Cross Country and Track teams) and I am not someone who would be considered high-risk for developing complications from COVID-19. Having said that, let’s look at the details of this announcement.
In a press release, Vassar announced that it “will allow pre-approved supervised off-campus student travel” for activities that include varsity and club athletics and other local opportunities such as field research, volunteering, visits to cultural sites, parks and natural areas. Although this announcement applies to many ventures, the big focus has been on athletics, with some students even expressing they felt that the inclusion of these other activities, which will be less accessible than competition will be for athletes, was for no other purpose than to put forth a guise of equality. We informed President Elizabeth Bradley of these specific criticisms. “From the beginning, we were focused on equity,” she responded. “We wanted to find a way to ensure off-campus travel for educational purposes could be undertaken safely, and I think we have an effective plan.”
While it is true that a majority of students on campus are not athletes, we shouldn’t write off any activities just because a majority of students are not involved in them. There are so few things on campus that all students participate in; it just so happens that athletics are one of a small number for which off-campus endeavors are important. And I am all for those other groups for which off-campus activities are essential to have the same access that athletics will.
As for the specifics of athletics off-campus, Director of Athletics Michelle Walsh detailed them in a webinar on March 1 that was available to student athletes and their families. She said that overnight travel and off-campus indoor dining will not be allowed, and masks must be worn at all times including while competing and traveling. Walsh also explained that rapid antigen tests will be required for all athletes and staff the day before a competition, and if any of the tests come back positive it will result in “an automatic cancellation of the subsequent contest.” Additionally, the Liberty League (Vassar’s athletic conference) announced that in any given competition, the teams would have to follow the rules of whichever participating school that are the strictest, even if they are stricter than the League’s guidelines. Both Vassar and the Liberty League explained that all of this is subject to change if conditions worsen on campuses and in the surrounding communities, and no member school is bound to the decision to compete; they can decide to cancel at any time.
Either way, there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that athletic competition does not pose a big risk for transmission of COVID-19. Following their 2020 season, the NFL published a study with the CDC about virus transmission in their sport, based on their testing and contact tracing protocols. The study indicates that no players or staff got the virus from being on the field on gameday. Granted, the NFL has a dubious history of being transparent about player safety, so any study conducted by them must be taken with a grain of salt. But, this study was published jointly with the CDC, headlined by some of the foremost public health experts. And even if the numbers are a little off, it would still mark an incredible achievement for such a physically intimate sport to avoid a full-on outbreak. Additionally, the British Journal of Sports Medicine did a small study on four different rugby matches (another contact-heavy sport) in which at least one COVID-positive player participated and they announced that in-match transmission was never confirmed. Not to mention, Vassar is not alone in this decision either: Aside from our own conference, other DIII schools, like those in the SUNYAC, have decided that it is safe to return to sports. High schools across the country—including in Poughkeepsie—have returned to play or plan to begin competing in the very near future. Bradley concurs with such a review: “The scientific literature and experience in schools that have played competitive athletics suggests the risk of transmission is low during athletics, and that risks during travel can be minimized,” she explained. “Additionally, learning that the other Liberty league colleges have committed to extensive testing and masking was a helpful input to our decision.”
If it is determined that the risk is low enough, there are many benefits to having off-campus travel again. Mental health has taken a huge hit, especially among college-aged students, during this pandemic and I am guessing that it will be the next global health crisis. We have all had to painstakingly weigh the risk of the virus with the risk of the mental and emotional damage that comes from isolation. Many of us decided the risk of getting the virus did not outweigh the benefits of coming back to school; Vassar’s on-campus student body is roughly 20 percent smaller than usual. Among those of us who did return, no one denies that coming back to campus has some risk involved, but many students have come to the conclusion that the benefits outweigh the risks. I see this most recent announcement as an extension of that: since the quelling of an initial outbreak that saw a peak of 35 active cases on campus, we have already allowed students to pod, dine indoors and run or bike within a five mile radius off-campus.
It is fair to criticize the unexpectedness of this decision: although Vassar announced long ago that they would be making a decision regarding athletics on March 1, I don’t think anyone thought there was an actual chance of competition happening. I myself considered it a forgone conclusion that spring competition was not happening. I think a lot of students came back to campus with the assumption that, just like the fall, there would be no off-campus activities allowed. This sentiment was shared by many friends and teammates, and one of them pointed out that Vassar could have told us before coming back to campus that there was a very real possibility off-campus competitions would happen. That way, people who were uncomfortable with this could have had all the information before deciding whether to come back.
Unexpectedness aside, any increase in risk, no matter how small, is scary for immunosuppressed individuals. Considering Vassar has decided it is safe to let off-campus activities resume, I wanted to find out what they are doing to give access to vaccines to immunosuppressed students on campus to try and mitigate some of the added risk. I reached out to Miriam Rovin ’23, who has firsthand experience dealing with getting an early vaccine due to being in a high-risk group. She told me that Vassar has been allowing immunosuppressed students to get a vaccine off-campus, but that they did not offer any assistance with transportation or getting an appointment for one. When asked for comment on Vassar’s contribution to acquiring vaccines for students, Bradley responded with the following statement:
“We unfortunately do not have any special access to vaccines, although we did apply early on to be a vaccination site and are still hopeful we will become one. In regard to travel to vaccine appointments [since we cannot offer vaccines on campus], all students who submit a request to go off campus to get vaccinated are being given exceptions to do that. If a student discloses to us that they are immunosuppressed (not all students disclose this, and they are not required to do so) and the student requests transportation assistance to their vaccination appointment, we offer assistance via the concierge service. If the student expresses that they would feel more comfortable having a housemate drive them, we can make an exception for the housemate to drive them back and forth from the appointment.”
So it appears that while Vassar neither has access to any vaccines on campus yet nor are they directly assisting students with finding appointments, they are providing transportation and making exceptions when requested by immunosuppressed students. “[Vassar] contract[s] with Hudson Valley Concierge to help us with transportation needs and the delivery of certain items such as student prescriptions,” Bradley explained, offering a link to their website. Nevertheless, posts in the “Vassar: The Virtual Version” Facebook group and Rovin’s statement have made it clear that not everyone is aware of these resources. Luckily, raising awareness is easier than gaining access to such resources.
I chose to come back to campus because I wanted the opportunity to do some of the things I used to do before the pandemic. I wanted to spend time with my friends, attend classes in person, be surrounded by people my own age and practice with my teammates. We have slowly turned to more and more activities that seemed unthinkable a year ago (returning to campus, indoor dining, contact athletic practice, etc.) and it has worked well so far; we did not see a spike in cases after these measures, and they have improved the mental health of many students. This semester, after enough time passes with active cases still low, athletics will just be another step towards normalcy that we can take, and we won’t even be starting competitions until at least March 22.
Varsity athletics are an integral part of so many students’ educational experiences. Not to sound cliche, but it is true that there are a lot of life lessons to be learned from sports, such as leadership, teamwork and resilience. Athletics provide a learning experience that the classroom just can’t. We are not in the same position we were a year ago: We know much more about how the virus spreads and how to prevent it from spreading, and millions of people are being vaccinated every day. There are plenty of safeguards; the college has determined that there is not a significant risk, and there are huge benefits to be gained. So far, the administration has gotten things right. We have been a huge success story reopening during the pandemic. The people making this decision have real credibility. I think we need to start inching our way back to normalcy and I am hopeful that by the fall, we will have our regular lives back again. We will never be 100 percent safe from this virus again but with proper protocols in place and diligent research and risk assessment, we can and should start to return to the things we used to love so much.