Winter in a Plague: Bates Community Must Manage Expectations


On-campus instruction at Bates has been – if measured by the number of positive cases – an objective success, particularly in relation to its peers such as Trinity, who have seen disastrous levels of COVID-19 transmission. However, the winter semester will bring its own unique set of challenges that will fundamentally alter life on campus. 

The vast majority of group socialization – particularly with regard to dining – takes place outdoors. With temperatures already rapidly dropping, it goes without saying that dining, holding meetings, or organizing group gatherings outside will be entirely untenable. 

The relative confinement already experienced by students will, in all likelihood, be heavily compounded by the winter season. Unless rules drastically change, dining may be largely relegated to one’s own residence hall and the opportunities for group socialization will be limited to what can be reasonably distanced indoors. 

On a broader scale, the future of the pandemic remains wholly uncertain. While some pharmaceutical companies producing vaccines for COVID-19 are hoping to receive FDA approval as early as November, public health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci have projected bleak outcomes for the winter of 2021 as cases steadily rise in the United States and temperatures drop to levels more hospitable for the virus. 

So what does this mean for us? I intend, as someone currently studying remotely, not to in any way relay a sense of undue pessimism for the upcoming semester. I believe that Bates and its community have demonstrated their ability to operate and live on a campus successfully during a pandemic. The current total positivity rate for students remains at 0.01% – a truly remarkable achievement for a small campus where students live and study in close proximity. Faculty and staff have had similarly good outcomes, with positivity rates only slightly higher at 0.02%. 

And yet, in order for Bates to maintain this level of success, we have to manage our expectations – and be willing to get uncomfortable – for the second semester. While many have claimed that the approval of a vaccine will allow life to resume as it once was, approval and availability are vastly different things. Though the FDA deeming a vaccine to be safe and effective will be a monumental step in the right direction, CDC director Robert Redfield has stated that the necessary number of doses will likely not be distributed until well into 2021. 

Thus, we cannot allow ourselves to be deluded that a successful fall semester implies a relaxed winter, or that a vaccine will necessarily bring back the things we love like Commons, 80s weekend, or graduation. What’s more, we have to be prepared for a semester that might feel even lonelier or unfamiliar than the last. Cautious optimism is never a bad idea, but managing our expectations for the upcoming semester will both save us from our collective disappointment as well as remind us to make responsible decisions in order for the winter semester to occur at all.