Is the pandemic over? Is it back on the rise? Is Vassar still a bubble and are we considering the health risks in regard to Dutchess County? Can we resume our regular pre-pandemic behavior? One of my clubs is allowed to meet in person and we can eat in the Deece again, so can I invite my friends over to my SoCo to hang out like we would in an ordinary year? These are the questions floating around as we attempt to return to a more “normal” college experience. However, these questions are either unanswered by the College or answered with contradictions. If the College wants students to feel comfortable about returning to campus and the classroom, they need to standardize their approach to the situation.
The administration made the decision to require masks indoors extremely late, the day that athletes, the largest group to return at that point, began arriving for preseason on campus. The decision to mask was made in reaction to a public health alert on Aug. 18 by the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health that cited a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases in the county (Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health, “Dutchess County Experiencing “High” COVID-19 Transmission Rate; Vaccinations, Masks and Other Mitigations Recommended to Prevent COVID Spread,” 08.18.2021). That being said, it does not leave a great taste in my mouth that the College put in place a change in protocol just days before the start of general student arrival back to campus without adjusting any other campus protocols or practices. If we are going to be required to wear masks indoors, we should double down in all areas. The email states that the administration will reevaluate that mandate in the week of Sept. 13, but says nothing about other protocol changes.
And yet despite this apparent hard-line on masking, campus regulations regarding indoor capacity limits and social-distancing rules are largely ambiguous and unenforced. The Vassar Together page for Fall 2021 states that party capacity must be restricted to 35 people and can only be held after the magic day of Sept.13 (Vassar Together, “Fall 2021 Campus Experience”). Yet, despite this stipulation, many living in apartments are under the impression that gatherings are limited to 15 people based on an Aug. 30 email. Indeed, even the limitation of 35 people seems ambiguous. I can only organize a group of 35 people whether I host indoors or outdoors, and yet an unlimited number of people may eat and gather unmasked in the Deece, where all risk of contracting COVID-19 somehow miraculously vanishes.
I’m not trying to imply that any of these restrictions on their own are unnecessary or excessive. What I am pointing out is a reality that was true in some cases last semester as well: the rules currently set in place seem as if they are there more to cover the school’s back than to create a safe environment for students to settle back into campus life. In order to create a campus environment that feels as “normal” as possible while still maintaining safe protocols in light of the delta variant, the guidelines must be more consistent and substantial.
At this moment in time, there is much confusion, and therefore anxiety, as to what is allowed and what is not. People looking to simply hang out with their friends in their own dorm or apartment are worried that they might be penalized if caught. Heads of clubs looking to schedule events and programming are unclear on the permissible scale and whether they are able to host them inside or will be forced outside.
The campus protocols regarding COVID-19 safety must be more consistent and reflect the needs of the students, and there must be more clear messaging and enforcement of those improved guidelines. I agree that we should be wearing masks indoors at this time. Dutchess County is crawling with delta and there are cases on campus. Since Vassar College is no longer a closed-campus bubble, the only way to prevent its continued spread on campus is to remain masked when in close proximity to one another indoors (Daily Freeman, “Ulster and Dutchess counties have most active cases of coronavirus since May,” 08.05.2021); (Vassar College, “COVID-19 Dashboard (Fall 2021),” 09.07.2021). That being said, if we are going to institute relatively strict and vigilant protocols and then enforce them, we should not allow dining at full capacity in the Deece. This contradiction is where guidelines begin to feel arbitrary and ineffectual. If we are going to be vigilant in one area, then we must be vigilant in all.