During a typical week at the college, a student could last almost the entire week eating nothing but the food offered at the multitude of campus events that would take place each day. (A Phoenix writer even documented this last fall, writing that attending every campus event with food “took an insane amount of time management skills.”) Not only could one always find students at the various Sci 101 or Scheuer lectures, ‘study breaks,’ TA sessions and club meetings taking place, but on campus, even academics are a social activity when students often study together in the library.
If you look at the college calendar now, you’ll see a stark difference: almost nothing is scheduled. And even with the Zoom events and the occasional lawn gathering for on-campus students, Swatties are less connected than ever, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has put unimaginable and unforeseen stressors on almost every member of our community.
For those of us who live off-campus, we have a certain degree of control over how we go about our personal interactions and manage our social lives. But for on-campus students, the college made a commitment to take care of the safety — both physical and mental — of the students it planned to house. Social connection is a critical part of this health. And while safeguarding itself against legal liability, the college has failed to allow students the opportunity to have safe, fulfilling social engagements, which jeopardizes their mental health.
With the creation of the Garnet Pledge and updates to the Guide to Residential Living, the college tightens community regulations in the hopes of providing a safe learning environment for its students. Currently, those restrictions allow for some social interactions and wellness activities, like working out at the Matchbox or on the track, eating in small groups in Sharples, and studying together.
Students are currently only allowed to have one guest in their rooms at a time, and must wear masks at all times when they are around others. When socializing indoors — which will happen much more frequently as the temperature continues to drop — students’ only options are to gather in the Science Center commons, dorm lounges, or small study rooms. This means that students cannot socialize privately with more than one student at a time and have to be vigilant about social distancing at all other times, as Public Safety walks through dorms to check student behavior and even enters students’ dorm rooms without knocking.
Additionally, some other restrictions are enforced overzealously, and in some cases, are also counterproductive. The college threatens revoked housing for first-time infractions, which both shifts blame onto students and creates incentive for students to withhold contact tracing information. It’s understandable that administration is hesitant to change campus policies when so far they’ve kept the virus from significantly spreading on campus, and safety from COVID-19 is paramount. Small gatherings among residents, however, represent much lower risk than a trip to Target, which is currently allowable by the Garnet Pledge.
One alternative that the college might investigate is the creation of pods, or clusters of uninfected students. The students would be allowed to interact with each other in larger groups in either residence hall lounges or the students’ respective rooms. These family-sized units foster a strong sense of community and promote a diversity of interactions while continuing to encourage safe socialization amongst students, ultimately reducing temptation to violate safety guidelines. The college could establish a committee to explore the feasibility of such a policy.
In addition to pods, the college could be offering more social events to bring together students on campus and off, especially as lowering temperatures further limit student activity.
While Swarthmore continues to offer virtual C.A.P.S. consultations via Zoom, the college could still be providing activities designed to reduce stress and to protect students’ mental health; options for fall outdoor activities could be as simple as arranging socially-distanced movie nights, group painting, or yoga on the lawn — weather-permitting, of course. These activities would simultaneously allow students to socialize safely while continuing to prioritize their mental health.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students are also facing extracurricular pressures that make socializing even more difficult: family obligations, jobs taken on to replace missed internships or lost income from family members, illness of loved ones, and anxieties about the future. Students are expected to keep up with a demanding workload while simultaneously grappling with feelings of loneliness and uncertainty.
It should be no surprise that a large portion of the Swarthmore student body is facing new and more difficult challenges than ever this semester. In times of pressure, we rely on others to support us, but we’re isolated even in on-campus housing. While it is understandable that administration is hesitant to loosen campus regulations in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the college is still our alma mater —nourishing mother, in Latin. It still has a responsibility to provide a livable, nourishing environment for its students. This will take more careful consideration as we move into winter, and deserves administrators’ attention.