Katherine Merisotis/The Bates Student
Student Experiences With COVID-19 Policies: Frustrations, Contradictions and Improvements
As the Bates community approaches the third year of the pandemic, students are reflecting on the ways in which COVID-19 rules and regulations have impacted their college experiences as well as how this semester compares to campus life during the earlier stages of the pandemic. Many Bates students have voiced frustrations regarding the inconsistencies within public health policies, isolation procedures and vaccine requirements for the winter 2022 semester.
For students who were on campus during the 2020-21 school year, there was strict enforcement of the COVID-19 policies and a relatively universal understanding of what was necessary in order to keep the community safe, especially in the absence of vaccines.
“Last year, things were super strict. That enforcement we saw [last year] works because it inflicted fear in the students,” said Stella Santucci ‘22. Though many of this semester’s policies resemble last year’s, the addition of vaccines, coupled with a decrease in enforcement and a lack of universal understanding about public health expectations, has led to confusion and accusations of hypocrisy.
Several students have expressed that there are loopholes and discrepancies in the current public health policies that take away from their overall legitimacy. “There [are] so many inconsistencies within them, they make no sense,” said Sebastien Kleitman ’24, “At least if they were gonna be strict about COVID-19, they better follow through. They lack any legitimacy regarding restrictions right now. What’s happening right now is making things worse for the people that follow the restrictions, and it’s impacting their mental health more than anything else.” While last year’s policies involved clear parameters and consequences, some students feel that this year’s policies are in many ways subject to interpretation.
When asked about her feelings on the winter semester’s COVID-19 policies thus far, Santucci told The Student, “Bates did not really put any rules in place to protect us from COVID. They just asked us to get vaccinated and boosted, then you find out that staff and faculty aren’t required, and then that they aren’t actually enforcing the booster requirement … just making a list of those who don’t have it.”
In a student information session on Feb. 2, Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Geoffrey Swift stated, “As our employee vaccination rate increased … we needed to make a cost benefit analysis as to whether it was worth doing a mandate to perhaps get an extra 2%, versus the offsetting organizational situation about it, perhaps also exiting a set of employees who right now are providing valuable services. For students who don’t yet have their booster, Bates Health Services is tracking those students as they become eligible.”
Santucci continued to outline her frustration, “Once you could go into other people’s dorms, Bates gave us everything back but Commons. There were no rules, nothing outlined as to what happens if … all these new cases were avoidable. The school can’t get mad about kids partying when they didn’t put any guidelines in place. Things were really outlined last year, this year there are no outlines, and that’s the issue.”
Editor’s Note: Interviews were conducted prior to the reopening of Commons announcement on Feb. 4.
Perhaps the most controversial policy decision so far this semester was the return to last year’s grab-and-go structure in Commons for the entirety of January and the beginning of February. On Feb. 4, Vice President for Campus Life Josh McIntosh announced that in-person dining would be reinstated starting with dinner on Feb. 5. Prior to this announcement, many students voiced their frustration with grab-and-go and the negative effects that the absence of Commons has on mental health and campus social life.
Kleitman feels that closing Commons did not significantly limit the spread of COVID-19 and instead prevented the students who actually follow the rules from having the chance to socialize. Kleitman stated that not having Commons “ends up isolating a big part of the student body.”
He then continued, saying, “The virus is still spreading among those that party and they’re not enforcing any rules regarding parties. So there’s no consistency, but they’re closing one of the main lifelines of campus.”
Given the efficacy of vaccines and the fact that students sacrificed the past two years to COVID-19 restrictions, Kleitman felt that those who were comfortable with the potential risks should’ve been allowed to eat together in Commons prior to the Feb. 5 announcement.
“For people who are willing to face the risk and who know what they’re getting into, they should just let us eat together,” he said, adding, “I do have some friends who are immunocompromised, so I do think they should have an alternative where people can get food out of a box if they want to.”
This sentiment was echoed by senior Jackson Donahue, who feels that grab-and-go impedes students’ mental health. Similar to Kleitman, he also noted that the college has done little to stop parties, instead focusing on policies related to Commons and athletics that have no evidence of causing the spread of COVID-19.
Dylan Azcarate ‘24 was further confused by the seemingly contradicting policies in place at the time. “I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy going on right now with the Commons policy, coupled with the universal dorm access policy,” he expressed. “It doesn’t make too much sense that the school is allowing kids to go out and party as much as they want but then have the dining hall closed.”
Several students were also frustrated by the impacts of the COVID-19 rules for athletics. Some of the current rules include that both athletes and non-athletes must remain masked in athletics facilities; athletes who test positive for COVID-19 must follow a strict process before being allowed to attend practices and compete again.
Specifically, athletes must follow these “return to play” protocols for a five-day period after departing COVID-19 isolation. This process requires that students meet various benchmarks, such as walking or completing half a practice. Further, if students display symptoms during their COVID-19 isolation, they must get an EKG before competing.
Swimmer Suzy Ryckman ’22 was discouraged by this policy and shared her belief that many “students are more worried about Bates protocols and contact tracing than actually getting COVID-19.” She feels that the repercussions of Bates policies often outweigh the severity of the omicron variant.
Donahue echoed this sentiment by referencing another policy: that both athletes and non-athletes are forced to wear masks whilst working out. He shared the story of a recent day when he and fellow members of the track team spent hours shoveling the outdoor track, because “[they] would rather run in the snow than inside with masks,” due to how much masks impede oxygen intake during endurance activities.
To Ryckman, these policies do not boil down to medical evidence; instead, she said that she feels that Bates is “virtue signaling” and refusing to ask themselves an important question: “Do you as students feel like [these policies] are benefitting you?”
During the first two weeks of the semester, there was confusion about why Bates was only using rapid antigen tests, as opposed to PCR tests, to screen students for COVID-19. Though The Bates Student reported on some of the reasons why the school opted for the rapid tests, false negatives are more common on the rapid tests, and some students were inclined to take additional tests on their own in order to determine whether or not they had COVID-19. “I knew that I had it because my friend had it and I had all the symptoms, but I tested negative with the school, so I had to go out on my own and spend money on another test that same day to prove it,” explained Julia Slayne ’22.
After she informed the school that she had tested positive, Slayne shared that they acted quickly in terms of moving her to isolation housing and figuring out contact tracing information. “So it was really just the testing process that didn’t go well,” she said. “I get that they can’t test people every day, and twice a week is more than most schools. But if people have symptoms, they should be able to go get tested.” While it is possible to get tested at Health Services during the week, this service is not frequently advertised to students, and it is unclear which types of tests are available.
Max Good ‘25 was stunned when two of his classmates, who were told to attend class while waiting for their individual rapid tests after a positive pool result, received calls that they had tested positive. “About a half-hour into my class, I watched two of my classmates abruptly pack up their stuff and leave to be quarantined after their phones rang. We were all a little shocked after that experience,” Good reflected.
Students Who Test Positive
For some students who tested positive through at-home testing on a non-testing day, the process of moving to isolation housing was delayed. “I tested myself on a Wednesday, even though I had no symptoms but my roommates were feeling sick, and when I tested positive, I called the school to tell them, it was around 4:30 p.m., and Health Services told me just to wait till tomorrow,” explained Lizzy McGrady ‘22.
In such a situation, certain decisions are left to the discretion of the student, such as how to access meals and navigate communal bathrooms in dorms. “Obviously I stayed put [and] I didn’t go into Commons that night for dinner, and I woke up at 8 a.m. and got tested the next day to start isolation as early as possible. But if I were someone who had a disregard for the rules, I easily could’ve gone anywhere and infected anyone without getting in trouble since the school didn’t respond to my positive test at first,” McGrady added.
Margaret Flynn ’22 was also delayed moving into isolation. Flynn tested positive on an at-home test on a Sunday afternoon, and after searching the Bates website for guidance, she learned that she was supposed to call Campus Safety to report her results, according to Health Service’s “What if I Test Positive for COVID-19 on the Weekend?” information page. “So I called Security, and they had no idea. They were like ‘oh … okay,’ and I asked them what I should do. They said they didn’t know and seemed very confused to be getting this call. It was obvious to me that I should just isolate in my room and use the bathroom space as little as possible and wear my mask, but I was kind of looking for reassurance in that moment after testing positive, and it was just clear that they hadn’t been briefed on how to talk about it,” explained Flynn.
After that phone call, Flynn emailed her test results to Health Services and the Testing Center and assumed that she would hear back in the morning about what to do next. When Health Services called her in the morning, they explained that they would contact her about isolation housing with an email soon. She told them that since she had been isolated in her room, she hadn’t eaten breakfast, so she was curious if there would be a lunch option available when she moved into isolation. Health Services said they could definitely provide lunch and promised to make a note of it.
However, after several hours, Flynn had not yet received an email. “No email comes, and lunch passes, so I didn’t get lunch. I eventually called them, and their explanation was basically like ‘we forgot about you’ … I don’t really understand,” shared Flynn.
By Monday evening, Health Services finally sent her an isolation room assignment, but due to a mixup with the room number, dinner was closed by the time she was settled into her room, so she did not get dinner either. “The rest of the experience was totally fine, and I appreciated everything they did, but that beginning part was tough,” she said.
Within isolation housing, there have been a variety of complaints about noise and partying that made it difficult for some students to rest while they were recovering from COVID-19. McGrady, who was isolated in the old daycare center on 96 Campus Avenue, shared, “I was lucky in that I was asymptomatic, but I know a lot of people were coughing and definitely a lot more sick than I was. And I think there was miscommunication with everyone there because some people were much louder than others at night, and I know recently, people have been calling Security, but when I was there, we didn’t because we didn’t want to make a fuss. People were being loud [until] like 2:00 in the morning, screaming in the hallways, running up and down the hallways, blasting music, and I feel like people at Bates should be more respectful than that.”
Slayne, who was also isolated in 96 Campus Avenue, experienced similar issues with the noise level. “I feel like they could’ve separated people who are actually sick from people who didn’t have symptoms,” she suggested.
“I get that they put people in randomly, but they could’ve at least separated us by floor. I’ve heard lots of people complaining about people being loud in the dorms when others are sick, and if they didn’t have everyone in the same place, maybe that wouldn’t have been such an issue.”
Overall, in terms of the isolation experience itself, McGrady felt that “Bates was accommodating. The food was good — we got to pick whatever we wanted from Commons and it came at the same time every day. And the ordering system was really easy. Also, if we needed anything, they had someone call us every day, for medicine or anything like that.”
However, further concern was expressed over the college’s isolation policies to begin with. “If I live in a single and test positive, I can stay in my room,” Santucci told The Student. “How am I supposed to use the bathroom and mitigate interaction with the 15 other people on my floor?” Santucci also noted some students’ lack of concern and adherence to isolation policies.
“There were multiple students that I knew of that tested positive, but just didn’t do isolation. People left isolation housing to go party and people who had tested positive were congregating and partying in isolation … it doesn’t make any sense. I know the strict rules sucked, but if they had been strict from the beginning for a week or two, I don’t think we would be in this position right now,” stated Santucci.