Vassar students say quarantined campus an 'imperfect system' that is 'working'
On Aug. 10, Max Swan of San Francisco flew in to John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens and was picked up by a friend before the two headed north to Dutchess County.
They stopped off at a storage unit where Swan collected belongings that had been stowed there since March. Then it was off to Target for snacks, shampoo, toothpaste and other household items and, at last, the pair’s final destination – Vassar College in the Town of Poughkeepsie.
Typical of college students across the country this month, Swan returned to Vassar for his junior year as a political science major.
But as the global COVID-19 pandemic redefines college life in the Hudson Valley and beyond, his return to campus has been anything but typical. And the contrast is sharper at Vassar, which unlike other area schools has been "quarantining as a campus" in advance of today's first day of classes.
The college mandated residential students are not permitted to leave the campus during the semester. Students were required to be tested immediately before arriving on campus and were to be tested two more times in their first 14 days.
Asked about the quarantined approach, Swan said, "It did concern me at first. I was a little curious about it. But even though it's an imperfect system, it seems to be working."
And, the 20-year-old added, "I have a ton of faith, particularly in (Vassar) President Elizabeth Bradley."
The college, Swan said, has maintained its identity even with the dramatic changes implemented, which include tents for outdoor classes and grab-and-go food from the dining hall that he is eating in his room and in socially distant settings on campus.
Though students have been confined to campus and visitors are not welcome, they haven't been entirely cut off from the work. Takeout delivery from off-campus restaurants is still allowed.
Raising the stakes for colleges across the state is the announcement this week by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of a threshold for positive tests that could force a college campus to shut down. A college must temporarily cancel in-person classes if, over a two-week period, it has more than 100 positive cases, or an outbreak equal to more than 5% of its population.
And, Vassar has reported several positive cases of COVID-19 in recent weeks.
As of Friday, Vassar, according to its online coronavirus dashboard had conducted 2,715 tests, with 204 given in the preceding 24 hours. The campus had 17 student cases; two employee cases; and 12 active cases in which students were isolating with a positive result or an employee was not reporting to work because of a positive result. Vassar is home to 2,441 students and 355 faculty members.
Like Swan, Vassar junior Emma Tanner has faith that college officials are doing all they can to create a safe environment, particularly Bradley.
"I do trust everything she has put into place," the 20-year-old resident of western Massachusetts said. "I think it comes down to trusting my peers more than trusting the administration, and expecting my peers to adhere to the guidelines and not to do anything to put anyone in danger. The administration can only do so much."
'Shared accountability here'
Swan, after reaching Vassar, watched "a lot of Netflix" as he self-isolated in his dorm room for 48 hours while awaiting the results of a coronavirus test he took upon arrival. After that, a two-week quarantine he was required to undergo, because he came from California, continued.
But even with those restrictions, at a school that is "quarantining as a campus," Swan was allowed to leave his dorm for food and to exercise with proper social distance.
"Since I've been here, Vassar is the same in many ways," Swan said. "I think they’ve done a really good job of maintaining the same Vassar feeling, except everyone's cautious and you have to be careful. There is a shared accountability here. People want to stay here. We're either here three weeks or the whole semester. If we can get it right the first time, that is the most important thing."
Marist suspended 15 students for failing to follow coronavirus guidelines at an off-campus party on Aug. 19.
Then, a separate group of Marist students were suspended after attending a second off-campus party and coming into contact with an off-campus student who had tested positive for the coronavirus. The incident prompted college officials to place Champagnat Hall under temporary quarantine.
And the stakes are high, as Marist President Dennis Murray told students in the wake of coronavirus-related suspensions that, “If this trend continues, we’ll have no choice but to completely close the campus and require students to finish the semester online,”
A spokesperson for SUNY New Paltz said college officials received two reports of individuals not wearing masks in buildings and two violations of a rule prohibiting visitors in residence halls. All four cases are being addressed through the school's judicial process.
Swan said over the past three weeks he has seen Vassar students for the most part observing coronavirus guidelines, especially with masks and social distancing. If someone is out of compliance, another student will remind them and everyone proceeds in an amicable fashion.
Swan said students reminding students to wear a mask or social distance have been met with a "thanks. People aren't upset."
But as for Vassar students holding each other accountable, Tanner, who arrived on campus Aug. 23, said, "It's definitely a learning process."
A different arrival experience
Adjusting to life on campus in the midst of a global health crisis has been a learning process for Tanner.
A forward on the women’s varsity soccer team,Tanner the past two years has arrived to Vassar two weeks early for the fall semester, to begin practice. But because of the pandemic, the college's athletic teams aren't participating in intercollegiate competition through at least the end of the year.
And that has been just one of many changes to unfold as Tanner arrived on campus to begin the fall 2020 semester.
"I was certainly a little apprehensive when I found out we were going to be coming back, but at the same time excited," the science, technology and society major said.
Her family was unable to remain on campus once they dropped her off in front of her dorm and the car was unloaded in about 10 minutes.
"It was an abrupt drop-off," she said. "Given the circumstances, I feel fortunate my family could even come on campus at all. It was a bit rushed but it was a necessity."
Tanner because of social distance guidelines couldn't ask friends for help moving her stuff up three flights of stairs to her dorm room, so she and her roommate tackled the task together. They avoided the elevator so as not to be in a confined space and workers in the stairwell stepped aside to social distance.
And as the week progressed, Tanner said, "It seems everyone is pretty conscious of the regulations and doing their best to observe them."
Students holding each other accountable is pivotal to a linchpin of Vassar's plan to curb the pandemic on its campus.
Restricted without barriers
Vassar, in its reopening guidance to students posted online, said, “With very limited exceptions, such as medical care, off-campus student travel is not permitted." It also closed most areas of the campus to the public as of Aug. 8 – the first day in which students were returning – for at least a month.
But a spokesperson for the Town of Poughkeepsie college confirmed students living on campus can physically leave at any time. There are no barriers or guards positioned at its many entrances and exits, though there may be penalties.
"In my mind, it's tough to come up with a permanent solution," Swan said, regarding the campus confinement. "I was concerned with that at first. One thing that's helped me to get around this mentally is that everybody is wearing proper PPE. I am comfortable even though I do think it's an imperfect situation."
The college is relying on peer reporting, with students expected to detail violations on a form before submitting it to officials.
"It's definitely an honor system," Tanner said. "We hold each other accountable to the best of our abilities and take it seriously enough not to just break the rules.
She continued, "The administration trusts us enough to not enforce them with an iron fist and I appreciate that they trust us enough to let us have this freedom. But at the same time, they expect us to behave as adults and decide within ourselves that we shouldn't be taking advantage of the privileges we're given."
John W. Barry: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4822, Twitter: @JohnBarryPoJo