Over the last two weeks the College handled more than 140 new students and 15 employees testing positive for COVID-19—this semester’s largest outbreak. In the last week, President Elizabeth Bradley informed students in her Sunday email on Feb. 12 that only 12 students were currently positive on campus. As cases continue to fluctuate, the College asked the Vassar Student Association (VSA) to review COVID-19 policies.
According to a statement from President of the VSA Julián Aguilar ’23, “The recent spike in COVID-19 cases following several large-scale events has stirred renewed anxiety surrounding COVID-19 management, and thus requests from some students for a return to the types of policies imposed early in the then-pandemic stage of COVID-19—pods, mandatory testing and masking, daily symptom reporting, take-out dining, and off-campus isolation, among others.”
Responding to rising questions, Dean of the College Carlos Alamo said, “COVID-19 policy decisions are made by the senior leadership team in consultation with Health Services and state and federal public health guidelines for higher education. Students, faculty, administrators, and staff regularly share their perspectives regarding COVID-19 policies on campus, and these views along with the CDC and state public health guidelines for higher education, influence these decisions.” He added, “The president, Dean of College, and President of VSA meet regularly to discuss this and other issues to understand what is important to students.”
In the VSA Senate meeting on Sunday, Feb. 12, members began discussing thoughts and questions on current policy, setting a tone for future discussions, but not reaching a recommendation. He said, “The College has asked the VSA, as the elected representative institution of the student body, to deliberate further on our current policies and make recommendations for any changes which may be deemed advisable.” He further mentioned, “Topics of discussion range from the COVID-19 dashboard to masking, distancing, isolation and testing.”
Sunday’s VSA meeting was the first step in demands for endemic policy changes, Aguilar said. His statement to The Miscellany News read, “Over the coming weeks, the VSA will hold more space in our meetings to thoroughly and intentionally approach student concerns and perspectives. It is our utmost priority to balance student health and student comfort in these spaces. The ultimate culmination of these discussions will be a written memo passed through the Senate, to be delivered to President Bradley.”
According to Alamo, “Cases are not increasing currently, and it is difficult to predict what might happen for the rest of the semester. At the moment, we do not have indications of changing policies.” He added that even when cases do increase, policy effects are considered in a variety of ways including the impact on the physical and mental health of the campus.
Students are split between which path to take: one of stricter restrictions to prevent case flares or one of an “endemic” solution. Riley Bates ’24 acknowledges this difficult juxtaposition. “I think we could have seen it coming given that there were no masks or testing requirements coming into the semester,” she said. “I’m happy that we have been able to resume ‘normal’ operations, but COVID is still a stressor. It’s hard to find a middle ground between the right amount of restrictions to keep COVID from running rampant and not so many restrictions that people get frustrated with them. I don’t think we have found that balance yet.”
Bates, along with many other students, recommend watching cases more closely. She said, “I think if cases reach a certain threshold the college should require masking temporarily, at least in classes and large events. Just because the CDC doesn’t recommend masking policy doesn’t mean that it is no longer useful.” Bates added that the College making reliable KN95 masks available can help avoid more drastic measures like Deece takeout or limited capacities at events.
However, some students, like Natalia Fay ’24, hope the College does not ease restrictions when cases are high. She said, “I feel as if people are treating COVID as if it’s over and because of that it’s like a non-issue for most people, even though there are still immunocompromised people and COVID can still have long-term effects even if you’re not immunocompromised.”
Fay added that more needs to be done by the administration, saying, “I don’t think the College is giving many resources anymore. I know the [COVID test] vending machine still exists but at least recently there have been times where it has been empty for an extended period of time which has made it difficult for people to get tests when they need them. I haven’t heard anything about College resources towards masking.”
One of the things up for consideration is the maintenance of the COVID-19 Dashboard Tracker, which, according to Aguilar, can spur inaccurate information. He said, “The College no longer imposes mandatory bi-weekly testing, nor does it require individuals to disclose positive test results (or otherwise manage a system of symptom reporting). Therefore, the numbers on the dashboard are a poor reflection of actually-existing COVID-19 cases, generating for many students additional and unneeded anxiety surrounding what the actual frequency of COVID-19 might be.”
Aguilar also pointed out that updating the COVID-19 Dashboard is strenuous for both Health Service and the Communications staff, who initially thought the Dashboard would be temporary. Aguilar wrote, “The removal of the dashboard would allow them to more effectively devote resources towards other pressing concerns (cases of other illnesses now actually surpass those of COVID-19 on campus, for example).”
Fay agrees, citing that instead of harsh restrictions, the College should explore broader policies to battle the spread of general disease. “In policies versus harsh restrictions, I would be more on the policies side. This is because I feel like harsh restrictions will be viewed as an evil that the College is perpetuating while policies put systems in place so even if we get past the COVID pandemic and there are other diseases that spread easily on college campuses, those policies would already be there to deal with things other than COVID in the future.”
Bates said the vending machine in the Old Bookstore has been beneficial for students. Though she added, “I was not super comfortable with having to go to shared bathroom spaces and into the Retreat while I had COVID, even with a KN95 on.”
In her Sunday email, Bradley encouraged students to utilize the services and make the College aware of any positive cases as soon as possible. “Numbers of cases have decreased substantially and are back down to much earlier levels,” she wrote. “If you have symptoms, please wear a mask and test immediately. Let Health Services know if you test positively. This helps us all be safer.”
In closing, Alamo made sure to note, “It is important to remember we continue to consider health broadly—physical, mental, and social health—when we consider COVID-19 responses, and we will continue to have processes that help students who Health Services determine are at higher risk.”