College COVID-19 Policies Compromise First-Year Experience

These past two and a half years of COVID-19 have made approaching  health exceedingly challenging. In communities like Oberlin, where most students work, eat, and live together full time, this is especially true. In response to this seemingly never-ending peril, Oberlin, like other colleges, has developed a two-pronged focus on prevention and management this fall semester. Thus far, Oberlin’s prevention policy seems to be more effective than its management policy but both have their strengths and shortcomings.

Oberlin’s COVID prevention strategy can be summarized as follows: through Sept. 10, masks are required indoors except in individual dorm rooms, and all meals are grab and go. After Sept. 10, wearing masks indoors will be optional, but masking protocols are subject to change based on COVID cases in the surrounding community. As a first-year, I have not seen how the Oberlin administration dealt with COVID in the past, and I half expected mandated mask-wearing in classrooms and dormitories throughout the year. I am personally relieved that was not the direction they decided to go.

For one, wearing masks makes being a first-year more intimidating. Seeing other people’s faces is incredibly important when interacting, especially when meeting new people — an activity that has consumed a lot of my time at Oberlin thus far. It’s hard to walk into a room of strangers and, instead of finding friendly faces, finding friendly masks. I would also argue that the learning process is, to some degree, impeded by those lurking masks — if not one’s ability to learn from a professor, then at the very least one’s propensity to participate and actively engage with the course material. 

I would argue that Oberlin could have been even more liberal with its COVID policies these first few weeks. For example, the mandated grab-and-go lunch style doesn’t seem like a necessary step. Again, speaking as a first-year student, mealtimes provide students with a prime opportunity to meet classmates and forge friendships outside of one’s dorm. Oberlin’s website mentions that these temporary policies were decided upon in an effort “to reduce the potential impact of the large migration to campus,” but because almost everyone coming to campus this year had to show proof of full vaccination, it seems that this potential impact had already been reduced. 

This isn’t to say that caution is unnecessary, especially with a deadly virus. However, there is a tangible apathy to COVID guidelines around campus. Many students are relatively indifferent to mask-wearing within dorms and when meeting with friends, and if COVID were to materialize, it would likely spread with or without these “until Sept. 10” policies. While I wouldn’t make the argument that rules shouldn’t be made at all if few are likely to follow them, I do think it wise of the Oberlin administration to not push too hard on these regulations at the beginning of the semester when COVID doesn’t seem to be a significant threat. Overall, though, Oberlin’s prevention efforts have been reasonable, and it’s important to show Oberlin students and their parents early on in the year that the school is mindful of the COVID crisis. College students don’t like being told what to do either way, but if there is a rise in COVID cases in the future, students may be more likely to take Oberlin’s emergency measures seriously later if the school is more lenient now. Perhaps it would stress the gravity of the situation.

This semester’s COVID quarantine policy is a different story. If a student contracts COVID, they must self-isolate for “five days after symptoms surface.” While in isolation, students can pick up grab-and-go meals from the dining halls, but if they are too sick to pick up their own meals, they may contact Campus Dining Services to have meals delivered. Healthy students whose roommates are COVID-positive are advised to wear a mask and “maintain social distance as much as possible,” while continuing to live in the same room.  

It seems irresponsible to force a healthy student to continue to be in close quarters with someone who has tested positive for COVID. In making this decision, Oberlin has overestimated the efficacy of a piece of cloth or polyester. Catching COVID while working and sleeping in the same area as an infected person is not inevitable, but it is still very likely. Additionally, the CDC does not recommend wearing a mask while sleeping, even in shared sleeping spaces. I understand that this year, due to the massive influx of students, Oberlin is short on available rooms, but separating COVID-positive students and their roommates should be a priority to prevent the spread of COVID and keep healthy students healthy.

Another more easily addressed issue with this policy is that students with COVID are allowed to go into public dining halls, even after the campus-wide mask mandate expires. Again, masks are effective, but they are not miracle devices, and permitting sick students to roam campus seems very risky. A dining hall is an area frequented by many people who could potentially get infected. It obviously isn’t realistic to demand that CDS deliver meals to every student with COVID, but it should not be an option solely restricted to those who are too sick to walk. Perhaps students should be encouraged to give their phones or ID cards to roommates or friends so they can pick up food for them, with going in person or seeking delivery from CDS being a last resort.

With that being said, it is good that Oberlin has made COVID testing so readily available, and the website does mention that there may be some sort of temporary housing for healthy roommates who are immunocompromised. This is not meant to be a stern rebuke of Oberlin and the decisions made by the administration, but rather an observation that there is room for improvement in this incessant struggle to combat COVID.