Garnet and Gauze: Why are Colleges Bringing Students Back?

Disclaimer: This piece is by NO means condoning unsafe social distancing practices, on campus or off. Please continue to live by the Garnet Pledge guidelines and stay safe!

I still remember sitting on the plane home from Swarthmore in March, ears hurting and pretzel-less (they ran out). I felt a little disillusioned that my first year of college had effectively just ended, everything that made going to school here so much fun was over, and I’d soon be trading trips to Philly and New York for quarantines and hours-long virtual labs. But I had made my peace with it. I’d rather stay alive than stay close to Philly, and even if I was going to hate every minute, I could still rest easy knowing that most of my classmates and I would be safe at home.  Nobody would be exposing themselve, their families, or each other to killer viruses any more than they absolutely had to. Then, out came the various American colleges’ plans for their fall semester.

For many of them, that looked no different than their plans for any other semester. Students would come back to campus in a staggered fashion, live in dorms, and have in-person access to campus facilities. however, this time they also tried to set up “precautions” for their young students to follow, including, but not limited to, maintaining at least a six-foot distance between themselves and their friends, eternal mask wearing, not partying, pregaming, or convening for any non-essential reason, whether on campus or off. Anyone who broke these rules would face dire consequences, such as revocation of on campus housing privileges, or even expulsion without a tuition refund. 

Are the deans, presidents, and boards of colleges and universities really expecting their students, most of whom aren’t even old enough to drink legally, to adhere to guidelines that members of their own generation cannot bear for more than a few weeks? 

I don’t know why institutions of higher education, including ours, are inviting students back, but I do know that the events of last week probably aren’t the last of their kind we’ll hear about. Across the country, colleges and universities, including those in the Philadelphia area, have already become coronavirus hotspots, and never should have expected anything different. It’s easy for institutions to blame students for going out to see their friends, to party, or to visit large cities, but institutions are the ones with the power in this situation. They have access to all the best experts, all the latest research, and the clout to make decisions about the welfare of their students that will be relied on and trusted above all else. When an institution tells its students that it’s safe to return to a relatively normal semester, it codifies the idea that the virus isn’t something to worry too much about. When colleges repeatedly assure students that their safety isn’t in immediate danger, they can’t be surprised when their students don’t behave as if their lives are in immediate danger constantly. 

Our own school is one that believes that college students are so young and inexperienced that they lack the maturity and foresight to choose their own classes each semester without the close consultation of their faculty advisors. Simultaneously, it expects that doe-eyed, teenaged first and second year students who are just now entering their collegiate lives, collectively have the fortitude to be mere feet away from their closest friends and favorite activities, while successfully resisting them over the course of 12 long weeks? The college worries so much about its students’ ability to obey current campus rules and regulations, as well as Pennsylvania state law, that it hires its own police force to spend days and nights milling about campus, patrolling for possible code violations, teen drinkers, and college-aged potheads. Now, it believes that those same students will seamlessly comply with even stricter rules?

On a perfectly ordinary day, it’s self-evident that Swarthmore College doesn’t trust its students to follow any of its rules. Why is it different now, when the stakes are higher and students are more stressed?

It’s true, students have made choices,and they should accept the consequences of those actions. When it comes to responsibility, however, the institutions—the defining construct around which college students plan their lives—must be held accountable for the role they played in putting their students in a position to harm each other.

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