College announces COVID-19 policy changes through series of emails

Photo courtesy of Igor Martiniouk ’24.

As the first semester drew to a close, COVID-19 cases swamped students and faculty, forcing administrators to instigate a variety of new measures on campus. President Elizabeth Bradley and other administrators informed the college community of the changes in a series of emails the week before final exams.

With 52 COVID-19 cases emerging a week after returning from Thanksgiving Break, Bradley announced a COVID-19 booster shot mandate, a new masking policy, grab-n-go only at Gordon Commons and plans for Spring 2022 through several emails. She also encouraged individuals to be tested and receive their boosters with the increased clinics around campus, despite health staff limitations. 

“We saw a slow and incremental increase in cases starting about nine days ago,” Dean of College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana said in a written correspondence on Dec. 16. He added, “Our peak appears to have been about 59 active cases on December 15, 2021.”

Two emails from Bradley on Dec. 9 announced the implementation of a new indoor mask mandate, except when alone in a private space, and that everyone on campus must receive a COVID-19 booster vaccination by Jan. 17, or within 30 days of eligibility of getting the vaccine. “We are exercising this requirement as the most effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19 and allow campus activities to proceed safely in person,” Bradley said in one of the emails Dec. 9. 

According to Alamo: “Our shift on our masking policy was necessary given the increased number of cases and spread on campus. Masks continue to be an effective tool in helping to limit and contain spread so we felt it was in the best interest of our community to change our masking protocols.”

After the two emails on Dec. 9, students learned in an email the following day that faculty had been asked to address finals in ways that are responsive to collective and individual circumstances, even if it meant changing the format of exams.

Grab-n-go from the Deece. Photo courtesy of Igor Martiniouk ’24.

Some students had vehement thoughts on the recent changes to campus. Marisa McGehee ’24 said, “I think the school was absolutely right in mandating boosters.” She added, “I’m definitely concerned for next semester but I think as long as the administration gets their act together, we should be fine. My hope is that, come January, there will be mandatory testing like how it was when we returned from October break.”

While nearly 100 percent of campus is fully vaccinated, and asymptomatic COVID-19 testing on campus has become more available, students still voiced their concerns over the lack of required testing as a means to prevent outbreaks. 

Aislinn Russell ’25 suggested some ways the school could improve their COVID-19 policies. “I think testing needs to be constantly available,” Russell said. “I think the new policy saying we can’t have people in our rooms without masks isn’t going to be particularly effective because I doubt the majority of the student body is going to follow that rule,” she added. 

Nima Heffelfinger ’24 said that talking with students at other colleges, there seems to be a sudden rise in cases across the country. The New York Times reports that Vassar College, alongside Cornell University, Marist College, and others across the country have all experienced over a 200 percent increase in cases this year since 2020. “After a semester that felt pretty normal, especially compared to last year, it felt like a lot to have to go back to some mindsets we had to have last year,” she said in reference to the return of COVID-19 restrictions. 

However, Bradley and Alamo-Pastrana encouraged students to be patient with COVID-19 testing and Health Services. “We have been able to test effectively, but the wait times have been long, as many students know,” Bradley said. “We regret this, but we could not find the staff to get through all those who needed testing as quickly as we had wanted.”

Students, like Heffelfinger, have been quick to point out the difficulties students have faced due to these staff shortages. Heffelfinger received the booster on campus after waiting in line for several hours. She said, “The rising COVID cases have definitely been worrying. I think it’s good that the booster is mandated for the second semester.”

McGehee agreed with Russell that testing should be more structured, citing COVID-19 rules that seemed illogical to her. McGehee said, “It seemed really unsafe that there were absolutely no testing guidelines for post-Thanksgiving break. I recognize that there is a shortage of tests and people to administer them, but we are all living in very close quarters and I think the school has a responsibility to advocate for us and get these tests.” She added, “There’s an outbreak that everyone knows they could have prevented.”

In her Dec. 13 email, Bradley announced that starting Wednesday, Dec. 15, Gordon Commons would be grab-n-go only. In addition, chairs would be removed from the College Center. 

Ila Kumar ’25 said that while these restrictions aren’t ideal, they are necessary. “Grab-n-go for longer than a week isn’t super great or sustainable for weeks on end, but for right now it’s just a couple days and the best thing we could be doing to reduce contact,” said Kumar.

Heffelfinger said the new rules at Gordon Commons reminds her of her freshman year. “The grab-n-go just gives me flashbacks to last year, and either eating outside or having to be a little sad eating in our rooms,” she said. “I just went tonight and it’s pretty sad, especially after getting used to hanging out there,” she added. 

Come Spring 2022, Bradley remained confident that Vassar will require pre-arrival and post-arrival COVID-19 tests, among other to-be-announced policies. In a Dec. 17 email, Bradley said that the community plans to return to a full in-person, on-campus environment. Plans include to keep Gordon Commons open for sit-in dining and strict indoor masking. She wrote, “We will apply all the learning we have had through the last four semesters of the pandemic to provide the best and safest on-campus experience possible.”

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