Students adjust to in-person class, shifting COVID-19 protocols

When President Elizabeth Bradley announced on June 14 that the College would lift the indoor mask requirement and academics would resume in-person for the Fall 2021 semester, the campus community prepared for a “normal” year (The Miscellany News, “President Bradley announces COVID-19 policies for next semester,” 06.15.2021). Yet, as cases climbed over the summer both regionally and nationally due to the Delta variant, Bradley announced on Aug. 19 masking would be required indoors (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “COVID in Dutchess: New cases climb in August, but rate of vaccination increases, too,” 08.30.2021). The College now has a set of new interim masking and social distancing policies which include prohibiting overnight guests until Sept. 13 and requiring a PCR post-arrival test upon students’ initial return to campus. In addition, TA House Advisor Kris Van Nostrand detailed in an email that houses may not have gatherings in their vicinity involving alcohol and more than 15 people. While indoor masking in classes and communal spaces on campus is universally followed, some regulations, such as those targeting social gatherings, are being enforced haphazardly, if at all. While students, faculty and employees are navigating a set of shifting protocols and expectations surrounding COVID-19, they are also relieved to see classrooms and communal spaces filled with students again.

Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana explained that Vassar’s administration updated masking policy after the Dutchess County Department of Behavioral and Community Health issued a public health alert urging indoor masking even for fully-vaccinated people on Aug. 18 due to rising COVID-19 cases. “This is an extremely fluid situation, with public health guidance changing quite regularly. As a result, our protocols have changed, and may change again based on public health guidance,” he commented. “Right now our plan is to review all of our policies during the week of Sept. 13, including our indoor masking and party registration policies,” he added.

Despite masking being required in classes, students and professors have expressed excitement about being able to convene back in the classroom. “Last year, I was often the only person working in Swift Hall with one or two other colleagues,” explained Professor of History Lydia Murdoch. “We really sustained each other, but it’s a true joy to come in now and hear the voices of so many colleagues and students. I love the energy of teaching in a classroom again,” she added. Professor of History Ismail Rashid concurred: “It is energizing and exciting to interact with students in-person instead of through computer screens. In-person classes have dynamism and complexities that are difficult to replicate in Zoom classes.”

Yet, students have also noted that a full day of in-person classes can be more exhausting than sitting at a computer. “Interacting with friends and classmates as I go to and from classes has made this semester feel a lot more normal,” explained Brandon Lam ’23. “I do find myself feeling more burnt out at the end of every day,” Lam added.

Adjusting and readjusting to campus life with changing COVID-19 protocols is a transition for everyone, yet for students who haven’t been back to campus since March of 2020, life on campus amid COVID-19 can be jarring. Even beyond the pandemic, Vassar is a different place from when the pandemic started—two classes have graduated and two new ones have come in since March of 2020. “It definitely feels like a big culture shock coming back to Vassar since COVID-19 first started,” explained Sameer Mustafa ’23, an Economics major who had been remote and living at home the past year. “I am getting used to it…there are so many new faces here,” he added.

While Vassar currently has 12 COVID-19 cases on campus, some colleges are seeing breakthrough infections skyrocket as COVID-19 social-distancing measures loosen up for fully-vaccinated students. Cornell University’s president announced the school might have to transition online or even shut down if their cases continue to climb. The university currently has over 300 active cases, more than the total number of cases they had in all of 2020 (The Cornell Daily Sun, “Pollack: Campus Shutdown Is A Possibility If Cases Keep Rising,” 09.03.21). Bowdoin College shut down indoor dining and increased testing after an outbreak of 22 students on their campus, the highest number of cases the college has had since the beginning of the pandemic (The Bowdoin Orient, “College switches to Yellow status after surge of positive tests,” 09.03.2021).

For many members of the Vassar community, rising cases regionally and nationally among the vaccinated are a sign to stay vigilant. “Masked faces are stark reminders of the ongoing pandemic and the need to be careful,” explained Rashid.

Yet, some are critical of the College’s policies for fully-vaccinated students, especially the restrictions on social gatherings. “I don’t think [Vassar’s policies] seem fair to me,” said Mustafa. “Everyone is vaccinated here at Vassar and I think that we should be rewarded by not getting in trouble for being in a large gathering,” he added. Some also questioned the effectiveness of some of the College’s policies, explaining that students eating at packed tables unmasked at the Gordon Commons but putting on masks to go to class seems unreasonable.

But even with the enforcement of testing and masking policy, it is unlikely Vassar can guarantee that the Delta variant is completely eliminated from campus. When asked how the College will be sure the Delta variant is not spreading on campus after the first round of testing, Alamo explained, “We continue to encourage students to go to Health Service and get tested if they feel like they are symptomatic. Students can also go to Health Services and request a test if they feel they have been exposed to the virus through contact with another individual or because they have participated in a higher-risk activity.” Studies show that the vast majority of the spread of COVID-19 among vaccinated people happens when people have symptoms (The New York Times, “Worried About Breakthrough Infections? Here’s How to Navigate This Phase of the Pandemic,” 09.03.2021).

Despite the fear and the uncertainty, members of the Vassar community feel grateful to have far more flexibility and communal spaces than last school year. “It’s good to have students back. You are the spirit and driver of this place,” Alamo explained.

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