Balancing Mental and Public Health

If you were on campus at any point last school year, you know how tough it was to make the best of the pandemic-related public health guidelines. It wasn’t easy to sit through Zoom classes, suffer through freezing cold lunches outside to spend time with friends or be stuck in your room for hours on end (especially for those of us who lived alone in singles). 

When I got my first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech last April, it was probably the first time I had any amount of hope that this pandemic would eventually meet its end. For a while, it seemed like my hope would come true. I spent most of the summer working here in Maine, unmasked, seeing friends on weekends, going to parties and the beach. Things felt normal for once. Even when we returned to campus in the fall and had to mask in some places due to the delta variant, it mostly felt like a normal semester, which I hadn’t had since my very first year at Bates in 2019. I had hoped for a while that things would only get better and more increasingly normal, but that hope quickly disappeared when I received Joshua McIntosh’s update over break. 

Truthfully, I was really upset and angry when the new list of restrictions was released. The last two years have been incredibly exhausting for us all, and I am so ready to move past the pandemic. I know it’s not possible to fully do so just yet, but it’s so hard to accept that we may be in for another semester of isolation and hopelessness. The conditions of the winter 2020 semester caused my mental health to suffer, and I know of many others who had similar struggles.

As I’ve calmed down and thought rationally, I’ve since come to accept some of the policies, such as universal indoor masking — although I’m struggling to find affordable KN95s since cloth masks have been rendered less effective. The one policy I simply cannot find the rationale to support, however, is the suspended card access to other dorm halls.

I’m a JA in Rand this year, and my First Year Center (FYC) is fairly tight knit — which is great! I love that my first-years are so close. With suspended universal card access to dorms, all 14 of my first-years could gather together in the common room as long as they were masked. Meanwhile, I can’t invite my best friend to my room to hang out, even if we’re masked, because she lives just across the driveway in 280. I don’t see how this makes any sort of sense. Students who live in suites or have close friends in their buildings might be fine, but those of us who don’t live in the same building as our close friends inevitably suffer mentally and emotionally. 

If cases rise again and the reinstatement of restrictions become necessary, why not impose a gathering limit instead? It makes far more sense than a policy that makes it possible for all 92 Rand Hall residents to gather inside masked, but forbids gatherings of three friends from different dorms for a masked movie night. A maximum gathering count of, say, 10 people would be a much better compromise for those of us who, given the current restrictions, have limited opportunities to connect with others.

This pandemic has put a number of people’s physical health at serious risk, but those uncertainties continually decrease as variants like omicron become more and more mild, particularly for populations with high vaccination and booster rates, which we just so happen to have here on campus. COVID-19 also continues to put a strain on mental health, which will only get worse as in-person academic opportunities and social gatherings are severely limited. 

I am happy that the universal card access was reinstated, but nervous that it was even in place at all and could be restricted again if we experience an outbreak. I hope that Bates will quickly see that there is a maintainable balance between mental and public health, and create policies that continue to allow for students to see each other safely. If not, I can unfortunately say with confidence that we will have many instances of mental health struggles on campus in the coming weeks.