As second semester hits full stride, 215 students and community members have voiced their concerns over the perceived lack of COVID-19 precautions being taken by the College, demanding that more policies be put into place to prevent the virus’ spread in a petition filed to the school.
The five main demands of the petition are to increase isolation time to 10 days for positive COVID-19 tests, allow optional remote learning until February with recorded lectures year-long, provide free and readily available KN95 and N95 masks to the campus community, extend grab-n-go at Gordon Commons and require regular mandated testing. While students make up the majority of signatories, roughly a dozen parents and alumni are also among the 215 individuals on the petition.
Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana said President Elizabeth Bradley and members of the senior leadership team reviewed the petition but haven’t made any definitive decisions.
“We have considered these and many more options for having a safe semester while pursuing the College’s educational mission,” Alamo-Pastrana said. “We are working to balance all aspects of health—limited COVID-19 cases on campus while supporting mental and social health as well,” he added.
Many students, regardless of whether or not they chose to sign the petition, are having discussions with one another about feeling unsafe with the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading. “I chose to sign the petition because there truly weren’t enough precautions being taken to make sure everyone was safe, and it felt wrong to ignore the needs of the entire community,” said Chelsea Zak ’23, one student who signed the petition.
Zak added, “This school is not only comprised of healthy, young, able-bodied students and faculty, and it felt like we were making it ten times harder for many people to live their lives on campus without fear.”
Some students, however, chose not to sign the petition. “I just remember that I felt like it was too restrictive and didn’t sit right with what I’ve been taught in my classes around science, research, and public health,” said Cassie Cauwels ’22, a bio-chem major on a pre-med track. “After seeing so many student-led petitions fail in my time here, I felt like this one wouldn’t cause much change. It reminded me of people who are trying to virtue signal about who gets COVID and who doesn’t.”
There are certain portions of the petition that the school will not attempt to implement, including a hybrid learning setting. Alamo-Pastrana said the school prefers not to move to hybrid teaching because they are less effective and can be disadvantageous to those in a difficult remote learning environment. “The College is not accredited to offer hybrid or remote classes other than on an emergency basis,” he said.
According to Alamo-Pastrana, the College was able to locate adequate masking supplies to hand out to most students at check-in about a week before the return to campus, partly addressing one of the petition’s demands.
Still, students are hoping that high-quality masks will be made more obtainable. “I was thrilled to see KN95 masks supplied to students for free, as it was a major part of what we were advocating for in the petition,” said Garrett Schmid ’25, another signatory. Schmid added, “I would like to see these masks be readily available for all students. If not, I fear we will see an increase in students wearing insufficient cloth masks and an increase in COVID-19 cases.”
Many students agree that these masks are vital to preventing a spike in COVID-19 cases. Zak said, “I was extremely happy to be given 20 masks to start with, but I want there to be other ways for students to get masks anytime they need them.”
Despite the new measures , Alamo-Pastrana said, “We cannot predict what may happen in a pandemic. We post COVID-19 cases to the Vassar dashboard everyday at noon, and we do anticipate having a number of cases as we complete post-arrival testing and level set our campus.”
As of Tuesday, Jan. 25, there have been 95 cases on campus between students and faculty since the start of the Spring semester. Per an email on Friday, Jan. 21, plans to return to in-person classes and reopen Gordon Commons with reduced density commenced this week.
An important aspect of the petition about which many students feel passionate is required regular testing. The petition states that there is a need for more than one required post-arrival test, and references multiple studies throughout the document including University of Chicago Medicine and UC Davis research data.
“Regular testing is the best course of action to reduce risk and ensure the safety of all Vassar students,” said Schmid. He added, “As for required recorded lectures, that would relieve potential stress for any students afraid of falling behind in academics due to the pandemic.”
Olivia Gatto ’24 agrees that the college must better promote safety measures all around. She said, “I was drawn to sign the petition by its demands on the College to provide more resources to students, such as better-quality masks and testing kits. I think that we can take more preventative measures against COVID spread so that a spike like last semester doesn’t happen again while still giving students the freedom to share spaces if they are comfortable.”
Still, the petition has grammatical and clarity issues that can make it less appealing, according to Cauwels. She continued by considering a number of other potential solutions such as more specific demands or advocating through social media.
Zak encouraged a system of friend groups to handle COVID-19 spread and exposures.
“What would really help me with risk mitigation, though, is giving us an option to register or form a temporary pod so we can see a small group of people if we choose,” she said.
RBJ Alamo-Pastrana. He said, “Our COVID-19 procedures depend on the prevalence of COVID-19 in the area,, as well as the cases and pattern of cases on campus, and any federal, state, or local public health guidance we may receive.”