In the past year and a half, “public health” has become synonymous with COVID-19 mitigation strategies. Preserving public health, however, extends far beyond the scope of the pandemic. There is no official college policy on what students should do if they have a non-COVID-19 contagious illness or in the interim if they are waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test. The college has not even explicitly discouraged students from attending class in the case of non-COVID sickness.
This is not a hypothetical situation. With no guidance or support in the case of non-COVID illness, students have been getting each other sick since the beginning of the semester. The potential for spreading diseases, even if they are not COVID-19, poses a significant public health issue for students and faculty alike; if students have no choice but to attend their classes while they have a cold, they can spread it to their classmates. Not only do individuals suffer as a result, but as a community, we affirm Swarthmore’s workaholic values as more important than protecting community health. To address this pertinent and perpetual problem, the college should create clear policies for professors and students on what to do in the case of non-COVID-19 illnesses that still have the potential to debilitate individuals and the wider student population every semester.
Currently, individual professors decide attendance policies for their classes. While some classes have fully remote synchronous options for students who cannot attend class for whatever reason, others have no such accommodation. The college only offers biweekly COVID-19 testing for vaccinated students based on the first letter of their last names, and students have reported that even if they are actively experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, the college has denied them PCR tests if it is not their testing week. Additionally, COVID-19 tests from third parties can be inaccessible for students without personal motor vehicles, and it is unclear whether or not students can contact Worth Health Center for rapid tests. The results of PCR tests can take days to return, and in the meantime, students have to gamble between missing crucial days of class and spreading whatever illness they have if they go. Furthermore, there is no guidance on what students should do for dining options if they have an illness or are waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test when they are sick. The safest option is going to Sharples or another dining location and taking food back to their room, but even this option is not a failsafe for spreading illness.
Until the college provides more guidance on what students should do in the case of illness, especially regarding attending their classes, it is difficult to believe that its COVID-19 prevention measures (mandating mask wearing indoors, mandating biweekly COVID-19 tests) are anything other than security theater. One lesson that people in positions of power should have learned from the pandemic is that even when COVID-19 is not a factor, it is essential that people place their health above obligations like coursework, which can be made up later. It is disappointing that even though some professors have begun to make accommodations for students with non-COVID-19 illnesses to prioritize recuperating over attending class and doing coursework, this does not seem to be an issue about which the college cares to take action.