ObieSafe Policy Enforcement Harms Black and Brown Students

It’s no secret that I’ve been very critical of Oberlin throughout my time writing for the Review. From the College’s failure to prioritize student mental health to its half-hearted apologies for repeated mistakes, I’ve been pretty diligent in pointing out the injustice I see here. Despite this, I’ve been relatively quiet about the ObieSafe guidelines created to manage COVID-19 on campus. They’ve been far from perfect in the past — the school failing to provide Resident Assistants with adequate personal protective equipment for one — but overall they’ve been very effective in keeping COVID-19 cases low. According to an email from COVID-19 Campus Health Coordinator Katie Gravens on May 17, “Oberlin maintained a positivity rate of 0.195 percent in the fall and spring semesters.” Until recently, I’ve been able to say that COVID-19 management was one of the few times Oberlin didn’t completely drop the ball. Sadly, they’ve disappointed me and many other students once again with their recent decision to halt mask requirements inside and outdoors for vaccinated people, effective immediately. 

This decision is a slap in the face to every BIPOC on campus who has had Campus Safety called on them for allegedly “violating” these guidelines. Some of my friends have gotten a visit simply by standing together and talking while being physically distanced. In the accounts I’ve personally seen, nothing ever happened to these students — thankfully. Still, they should not have to fear consequences like this in the first place, especially because white students get away with significantly more and worse violations — even while in Black spaces. During the fall semester last year, I skipped dinner at Lord-Saunders Dining Hall several times because there were simply too many white people without masks disregarding physical distancing markers around at the time. They get to disrespect our friends and spaces with relatively little consequence, if at all, and the College simply does not care. Black and POC individuals have been the most disproportionately harmed by COVID-19, and across the country vaccine access was not always immediately available to this population. 

If Oberlin was as progressive of an institution as it often claims, tools like this should not be this easily weaponized by certain students. It isn’t hard to see why some students receive drastically different treatment from Campus Safety, and which students feel comfortable weaponizing their services and even local law enforcement. They are not white, and as such, they do not get the same privileges or even benefit of the doubt as so many white students. If this testimony is not convincing enough, I have one more personal account to tell, which is why this is the first piece I have chosen to write for the semester. 

I want to be wary of situations where large parties gather with dozens of unmasked people. Even if  most of these people are partially or fully vaccinated, having a smaller group which is unmasked would be safe from a technical standpoint, but a group at conventional party scale seems reckless. I understand that parties like this can, and have happened already, but I hope that students and administrators alike can discourage such happenings. If campus safety or local police pass by, it is their responsibility to intervene. 

The onus falls on the college College to be consistent with whatever guidelines they decide on.

Another obvious problem with this policy change is the disregard for service workers. Across campus, there are nearly no systems in place to distinguish between unvaccinated, partially vaccinated, and fully vaccinated students. In the email mentioned before, the College merely “recommended” that unvaccinated people continue wearing masks and practice social distancing. As a result, workers already forced to adapt to the new ObieSafe guidelines will now need to play a dangerous guessing game. This decision doesn’t even consider how service workers at Oberlin are disproportionately affected by this change. I’ve already seen several groups entering DeCafé or Stevenson Dining Hall without masks, even when interacting with those serving their food. The reluctance to take a basic precaution to help employees, students, and student employees here is unsurprising — and yet disappointing.

The College’s carelessness also disproportionately harms immunocompromised students, faculty, and staff. I may not be in this situation personally, but my mother is immunocompromised, and I took more extreme precautions to avoid COVID-19 and super-spreaders while back home. The precautions were for her sake and my own, since we were not sure when the vaccine would be available or if my mother would even be able to get it. Luckily, she’s fully vaccinated now. Oberlin used to be where I felt slightly safer than back home, but not anymore. 

Not everyone can get the vaccine, and some immunocompromised individuals may not be completely safe even after being fully vaccinated. Before this recent change in COVID-19 restrictions, students had to carefully navigate certain “hotspots” on campus for unsafe gatherings more carefully than others. For instance, many of my friends in this category went to Stevenson Dining Hall significantly less or stopped going after seeing many unmasked and cramped students in that location. Students who already had to take extra precautions, besides those that the College enforced for months, will have to adapt once again. Getting vaccinated, continuing to wear masks, and social distancing go a long way toward making campus safer for students, faculty, and staff. Although we should remain vigilant when it comes to COVID-19 safety, the work to stay safe should not fall on people already overburdened by the pandemic in the name of “getting back to normal.” If achieving that goal means sacrificing people in the process, I’ll stick with the previous ObieSafe precautions.