After one year of remote learning and stringent COVID-19 restrictions, Swarthmore has opened its campus to all students for the Fall semester. At the Returning Students and Family Information Session on August 5, the college’s leadership laid out plans for a normal, in-person learning experience. Administrators also warned, however, that the new policies would be subject to change with the emergence of the Delta variant in the Philadelphia region.
Now that the Fall semester has begun, students, faculty, and administrators are facing the reality of in-person learning and living in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The college has reported that between August 14 and September 5, there have been six positive student results and two positive results among faculty and staff. In response, the college has amended many of its COVID-19 policies, including masking and testing requirements.
In an email to students on September 2, Director of Student Health and Wellness Casey Anderson informed the community of the new testing protocol that requires biweekly testing for all fully vaccinated students, in addition to weekly testing for all unvaccinated students, who currently make up 6% of the student population (only .5% of students have received vaccination exemptions).
Anderson wrote, “based on guidance [from public health experts] and with the latest increase in the prevalence of the Delta variant in [Delaware] county … we will now require regular testing for all students, regardless of vaccination status.”
Testing takes place in Bond Hall on Mondays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is by appointment on the Aura app. For students who are fully vaccinated, the testing pool is split in half — one week, students whose last names begin with letters A-M will be tested, and the next week, students whose last names range from M-Z will be tested. These two testing populations will alternate from week to week indefinitely.
In an interview with The Phoenix, Sarah Chang ’22 explained that she was happy when the college announced the new testing policy, and that she thought the original policy of only testing unvaccinated students seemed too loose compared to other colleges and universities.
“It did surprise me a bit when Swarthmore initially announced that they would not be testing vaccinated individuals unless they had symptoms, since it seems like a more relaxed policy compared to other colleges/universities,” she said. “This year it seems like we are average or below average in intensity of COVID policies, like frequency of testing and sanctions on gatherings. It’s not that we’re not taking COVID seriously, I think the administration just thinks that the risk in our area is not high enough to warrant higher intensity and vigilance.”
Nevertheless, Chang believes it is positive that the college is continually reassessing its policies based on new data.
“I think the current testing frequency is enough for now, especially since nearly everyone is vaccinated and we’ve never had clusters of cases on campus, but I think the frequency should be open to change based on new data about the vaccine’s efficacy against other variants,” she stated.
In an email to The Phoenix on September 7, Vice President of Communication Andy Hirsch wrote that, like students, faculty and staff will now be required to test regularly, starting the week of August 13.
In addition to the new masking and testing requirements, Dining Services announced on August 27 that it will transition from card scanning in Sharples back to the G.E.T. app reservation system used in the 2020-2021 academic year. In an email to The Phoenix on September 3, Dining Services Director Linda McDougall explained the reasoning behind this new policy.
“We felt if students came back to campus and got used to using the G.E.T. app it would be easier if we had to transition back to past COVID protocols,” she wrote. “These protocols could include personal distancing and timed reservations. Another reason for the G.E.T. reservations was it helped us to create an express line and focus on our reusable program and take out. The G.E.T. app is also used for mobile ordering at our retail locations.”
McDougall also addressed the large crowds in Sharples and explained that they have been historically large for the first few weeks of the semester in previous years and that the current crowds in Sharples were expected among Dining Services.
“We absolutely expected and were prepared for the crowds. Historically, Sharples has always been crowded the first couple weeks of the semester. We attribute this to Sharples being the place where Swatties meet up with friends that they have not seen for several months, and in this case, over 18 months,” McDougall stated.
In an interview with The Phoenix, Ryan Jin ’24, who served as an orientation leader, recalled the limited COVID-19 restrictions on campus during orientation and explained that the first day of orientation seemed particularly nonrestrictive.
“It was especially bad the first day of orientation when all 450 freshmen and the orientation leaders were crammed into Sharples all at once because there was a scheduled dinner at 5:15 p.m. It took me 30 minutes to get dinner that day.”
Though the college has amended its policies with the G.E.T. app and begun to offer alternatives to dining in Sharples, such as grab-and-go lunches in Kohlberg, Jin expressed general concern over the crowds and explained that, with Sharples at full capacity, he fears more COVID-19 spread on campus.
“I’m most weary of the lunch and dinner rush at Sharples, where the cafeteria has well over [what looks like] 300 unmasked students at a time in a single room. While I’m not actively worried while I’m eating there, the thought that any given lunch rush could be a super spreader event intrusively invades my mind,” he explained.
In addition, some students believe that the continual changing of policies is confusing. In an interview with The Phoenix, Carlotta Piantanida ’24 expressed that there is a tension between allowing students to have freedom on campus and imposing rules to ensure a minimal spread of COVID-19.
“It’s very gray, with the COVID policies. Every other week things are changing. [The college] is not being as strict as they were last semester, but now this semester, we are allowed to do more things. It’s like [the college is] trying to impose strict policies while also not being strict at all, ” she explained.
With the next wave of testing results being released in the coming days, and as COVID-19 cases in Delaware County continue to increase, it is possible that there will be more changes to the Fall semester policies. Jin expressed that, even though some policy changes are unpredictable, implementing the new cautionary policies are critical.
“It’s definitely necessary that we [reassess and change our policies] for the sake of operating a full campus during a pandemic. It can be annoying at times, but it’s completely warranted,” he said.