Vassar’s pre-approved off-campus travel policy: Socially enriching experience or a hazard?

On March 1, President Elizabeth Bradley sent out an email announcing Vassar’s prospective plans to institute pre-approved off-campus travel. This updated policy allows for class field trips, sporting events, field research, volunteering, guided tours, and fitness events. Individual travel is not included, and all events must be supervised by a faculty member. Despite fluctuating COVID-19 on-campus case numbers, this decision was implemented on the week of March 22. 

Bradley assured students that “Extensive health and safety protocols will be in place for students who participate in such off-campus activities.” These protocols included the wearing of a mask at all times and a rapid antigen test within 24 hours of returning to campus, as well as the prohibition of indoor dining and large groups of over fifty students.

However, rapid antigen testing has a 41.2 percent accuracy rate in asymptomatic people. When questioned about this statistic, Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Sociology William Hoynes replied that students and faculty will receive a PCR test three days prior to leaving campus, which have higher accuracy rates but are still prone to error. If the results are not received in time, a rapid antigen test will be administered 24 hours prior to travel. Hoynes said that the PCR test will be the main indicator, but that “the antigen test is a strong indicator of infectiousness.” An additional PCR test will be required four to seven days after returning to campus.

When asked about the fluctuating number of COVID-19 cases on campus, Hoynes reiterated that health and safety are the administration’s top priority, but that consideration for off-campus travel had been in development since the beginning of the spring semester. 

The safety of off-campus travel will be continually assessed. Director of Safety and Security Arlene Sabo notes that off-campus travel can be paused at any time due to an increasing number of COVID-19 cases on campus. Due to the precautions that have been developed based on scientific research and other university policies, Sabo believes “the risks are manageable and if something arises calling for the need to cease the program, we are prepared to do so.”

As for athletics, Vassar has adopted guidelines developed by the Liberty League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association for those competing in intercollegiate competition. According to Sabo, Vassar either meets or exceeds all of these guidelines. 

Sabo believes that off-campus travel will help to enrich the college experience, especially because so many activities have been cancelled this year. Hoynes added that off-campus travel will allow for an extended educational experience through both increased academic opportunities and through community engagement. On a similar note, Bradley wrote in her email that  “We recognize that organized off-campus activities are important components of students’ experience. They contribute to positive mental health and intellectual growth, and they forge meaningful connections with the local community.”

Logan Scott ’24, a member of Vassar’s basketball team, wrote, “I believe that off-campus travel, with all the precautions the Liberty League and Vassar implemented, for student-athletes is important, specifically for spring sports this year. Their seasons were canceled last spring and losing 2 years of the sport you’ve dedicated your life to is devastating.” 

Those who have expressed concern about the new policy stand on two opposite sides of the spectrum: those who believe off-campus travel may open the door to more COVID-19 cases on campus and those who believe that the policy is not enough and may favor athletes. Maeve Smith ’24 wrote, “I just am absolutely wary of it because I got COVID-19 last month, and I have no idea where from.” Another student, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote, “My opinion is that either we have off-campus travel for everyone or no off-campus travel. Even though we are allowed organized travel off-campus, I haven’t seen a lot of opportunities for non-athletes while spring athletes get to play various games. Also, Vassar is the only college that I know of where off-campus travel is for the most part prohibited, and I feel like our COVID-19 cases are comparable to those of other colleges in the Northeast.”

On April 5, The VSA released results from a survey of students in which 679 responses were recorded. In response to a question on whether off-campus travel should be increased, decreased or undergo no change, 57.1 percent opted for reduced off-campus travel, showing that a majority of the student body is concerned about the opportunity to leave campus. However, 58 percent also replied that they would be willing to participate in an off-campus event, showing that the majority of students are also receptive to change. 

153 comments were submitted in response to the results as well. These responses show a  divide between students on their level of comfort with off-campus travel. They range from “NO OFF CAMPUS TRAVEL!” to “Off campus travel is blatant pandering to the sports students and their parents’ money” to “I believe we should allow normal off campus travel regardless of what it is for. I believe that our student body is mature and knowledgeable enough to take precaution and wear masks…” The comments convey the fears and apprehension that the pandemic has created, but how can the administration reconcile the two completely different sides of the spectrum?

Sabo noted that regardless of concerns, multiple applications have been submitted for off-campus travel already, and she predicts that this new policy will be utilized to its full extent. 

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