Students On Campus Over Winter Break Express Concern Over New Policies

For students and administrators, winter break on campus looked different than it had in previous years. The College housed five times more students than usual due to COVID precautions limiting travel and the J-term offering. This year, in addition to the regular emergency winter break housing plan, the college was tasked with planning and distributing food for students in addition to administering weekly COVID tests for on-campus students.

In an email to The Phoenix, Associate Dean and Director of Student Engagement Rachel Head wrote that around 60-90 students stayed on campus during the break. This differed from previous years in which the college housed a much smaller cohort over winter break, averaging twelve to fifteen students who were mostly international. This year, the college remained open for students who needed housing and dining accommodations over the break.

The J-term offering is one significant factor explaining the increase in students over winter break this year. In an interview with The Phoenix, Sherry Huang ’23 explained that she decided to apply to stay on campus this winter break because she decided to take a J-term course. Huang emphasized that the conditions on campus were more conducive for taking a condensed, fast-paced course. 

“My home is not a place for me to take an intensive course. I requested to come [on campus] so I could have a place to stay and … do well in class,” Huang said. 

The dining plan looked very different during these seven weeks, said Dining Services Director Linda McDougall in an interview with The Phoenix. In previous winter breaks, there was no meal plan for students on campus. Rather, students would stay at the Ashton House, the college’s guest house that accommodates up to eleven guests, and receive a stipend for food. 

This year, because of the increase in student demand for emergency housing, meals were served out of Danawell Hall. Dining Services staff, alongside FLI and the Office of Student Engagement, set up a pantry in the Danawell connector stocked with snacks, beverages, breakfast items, and a Keurig. Students had OneCard access to Danawell for a certain window of time to access the pantry. At the start of the J-term, students picked up breakfast, lunch, and takeout dinners from Essie Mae’s.

According to McDougall, the meal plan was thought out in collaboration with Auxiliary Services (which includes Dining Services), the Dean’s Office staff, and approved by the President’s Staff. 

“Our reasoning and decisions were based on taking good care of the students who needed to remain on campus and to be sure they were nourished throughout their stay on campus,” McDougall said. “We also thought it was important that the Dining Services team be able to enjoy their holiday time from December 20 [to] January 3.”

The testing procedure during this period was similar to the Fall semester. Students were tested once a week in Bond Hall. Testing took place during a specific window of time, sometimes interfering with students’ J-term classes. Students who missed tests were sent to isolation housing until the next round of testing.

Huang explained that the testing policy was not great. Most students had class during their scheduled testing window. Testing took place from 10 a.m. to noon, even though J-term classes took place from 11 a.m to noon. 

“Everyone showed up at ten and then we all had to wait. It took a very long time [to get tested], and we had class at eleven,” Huang said. “We just hoped to get through quickly but couldn’t, because everyone showed up at one time.”

Kya Butterfield ’24 described his apprehension about the updated testing schedule. He explained that J-term classes distracted him from getting tested in the limited amount of time that he was able to.

“I almost lost my [housing privileges] on campus because I missed two COVID tests, and [the administration] made me write a plea letter asking for forgiveness,” Butterfield said. “I just slept in. The J-term schedule is what threw me off.” 

Butterfield elaborated that there was very little interaction among students and, for the most part, students adhered to the Garnet Pledge during this time. Given the smaller number of students and the limited interaction between them, the college reported zero cases of COVID-19 over the J-term. 

Nevertheless, the college continued its Public Safety surveillance presence to enforce the Garnet Pledge. The Phoenix reported last week that, with the Garnet Pledge introduction, Pub Safe now maintains a new, controversial role of monitoring student behavior on campus. 

One residential student, “Jonathan,” also expressed concern to the administration about new testing policies. 

“There was one week where [testing] just slipped my mind and then because I had a class, I kind of wasn’t focusing and missed the test, and within a few hours I got an email from [Senior Associate Dean of Student Life] Nathan Miller saying by that night I had to go into [isolation] housing, and I wouldn’t be able to leave,” said Jonathan. “The thing is, I tried to [explain the circumstances to Dean Miller], but it seemed kind of pointless, and if I wanted to maintain my [free] housing during the break, then I’d kind of just have to go to [isolation] housing.”

Butterfield expressed concern with the food offerings, explaining that if a student missed lunch, they would also miss their opportunity to grab take-out dinner, and there were few food alternatives to compensate. 

This was true for Jonathan, who lost his residential status on campus for sneaking into Danawell through an unlocked window leading into an EVS closet, labeled a secure COVID-free space where students are not allowed. He explained that on the day of the violation, he had missed lunch, and therefore missed dinner, too. He was hungry and wanted access to Danawell to get food from the Danawell food pantry. 

When Jonathan received an email from the Dean’s office about losing his housing privileges because of Garnet Pledge violations, the deans explained that he put EVS workers at risk by entering a secure storage closet and could have potentially set off an alarm and alerted first responders, also exposing them to COVID. Jonathan then sent an appeal letter to Dean Miller and President for Student Affairs Jim Terhune outlining how he disagreed with their reasoning for his aggressive punishment. 

Jonathan explained that, on the night of the offense, however, he was unsure about the specific rules in the Garnet Pledge that barred students from entering certain residence halls.

“We didn’t realize that it was anything secure,” said Jonathan, who was with at least one other student at the time. “[The food pantry] was another area that all Danawell students had access to, which meant, effectively, we had access to it, so we didn’t think there were any COVID implications.”

Jonathan believes that the college’s cracking down of the Garnet Pledge is to appear forceful in the face of the pandemic. 

“In my mind, it just seems like the Board [of Managers] told Dean Miller to be incredibly harsh because they didn’t want [Swarthmore] to be seen as a college that was letting anything slide, so [Miller] saw this as an opportunity to show other students that … we should make sure to stay in our lane,” he said.

Overall, the conditions over winter break reflect a broader conflict between maintaining adherence to rules and policies while also allowing for student agency. The new J-term offering, coupled with the maintenance of COVID policies, made life on campus during winter break more complex this year. Should J-term be offered in the future, it is likely that campus over winter break will look different than it has in previous years. 

Image courtesy of Laurence Kesterson for The Phoenix.

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