Two weeks ago, a large chunk of the Swarthmore student body fanned out across the country for Fall Break. We crammed into planes, trains, and buses; we hugged people we hadn’t seen for months; some of us let off steam at crowded parties or concerts. Most of us also probably caught up on some sleep. While the administration encouraged us to “consider avoiding travel,” “stay 6 feet away from others at all times possible,” and “avoid crowds and poorly ventilated areas,” it doesn’t seem like that guidance was heeded, at least if my social media feeds were any indication. (I personally went to New York City, spent plenty of time in crowded subway cars, indoor markets, and restaurants, and had a great time.) When classes resumed, almost every student on campus was tested for COVID-19; only two were positive, plus one external test. In fact, the week following Fall Break had the third-lowest positivity rate (0.13%) of any week this semester, after September 6–12 (0.11%) and the week immediately preceding Fall Break (zero positive tests).
Meanwhile, according to Swarthmore’s COVID-19 planning group, indoor gatherings are limited to 50 people with masks and outdoor gatherings to 75 people with masks encouraged. Masks are still required in all buildings, even technically while walking to and from the shower. You might think this is reasonable, or you might not. But my real problem with this guidance, and with Swarthmore’s guidelines more broadly, isn’t the occasional or not-so-occasional scientific inaccuracy or inconsistency. The problem is that we — the Swarthmore community at large, not just one group of planners — have nothing resembling a long-term plan and have, as far as I can tell, abdicated our responsibility to create one.
It’s important to note that until this semester, this wasn’t an issue. In the 2020-21 academic year, there was an implicit understanding that all these restrictions were temporary in some way and would persist until we were all vaccinated. Their temporary nature made many restrictions acceptable that I’d otherwise vehemently oppose: universal masking, no OneCard access to other residence halls, reservations at Sharples, restrictions or bans on student gatherings, guest lectures delivered mostly via Zoom, and plexiglass barriers everywhere. Well, we’ve reached a vaccination rate greater than 99% … and yet all these restrictions remain in place!
To be clear, I’m not saying that all those restrictions should necessarily be lifted immediately, or maybe even ever. But we need to have a target. For example, how long will we continue restricting indoor parties? Until everyone on campus gets a booster shot? Until community cases drop below some level? Until the college spins up a testing program that tests everyone biweekly ? There’s no “correct” answer here; we can’t just blindly repeat “follow the science,” because science can’t tell us whether one of these plans is better than another unless we work to decide what we value as a community. For a non-COVID example, sushi, being raw fish, obviously comes with a risk of infection. On the other hand, it is tasty. We might take precautions such as not eating sketchy prepackaged sushi; some of us would decide it’s not worth it and avoid sushi altogether. COVID is different because it involves community transmission instead of individual risk, but that just means we must make our decisions together instead of individually. Fundamentally, while it’s a comforting idea that we can just delegate our decision-making to “public health experts,” said experts are sometimes fundamentally unable to properly weigh risks and benefits. You implicitly understand this if you’ve ever cooked a steak to medium rare, allowed a pet into your kitchen, or had more than two alcoholic drinks in one day — all things which the CDC explicitly warns against!
Of course, while “follow all health guidelines without question” isn’t really a great idea, “ignore everything experts say” isn’t a good one either. Luckily, we can find an equilibrium between the two — but it’s going to have to involve us understanding each other and coming to a consensus, not just accusing people of virtue signaling or irresponsible behavior. To pick a specific example, based on my research, I don’t think indoor masking at Swarthmore is necessary, though it’s probably a good idea in places without vaccine mandates (like shopping at Target). But that belief is a product of the specific weight I put on various risks and values. You can look at the exact same data and decide that masks should be mandatory everywhere, or nowhere, or only in certain circumstances. That doesn’t mean that one of us is wrong, any more than someone is “wrong” to avoid sushi. (And because my masking behavior can affect spread within Swarthmore, if the community consensus is that the possible benefit of masking is worth the annoyance, then I’ll wear a mask along with everyone else.)
But while nobody can be “wrong” when it comes to individual COVID policies, it’s reasonable to ask whether certain policies are consistent with the values expressed in others. Given that having several hundred students unmasked in Sharples three times a day seems to be worth the risk (and has not resulted in any super-spreader events thus far), is it reasonable to limit outdoor events to 75 people with masks recommended? And seeing that students routinely leave campus and can freely enter crowded bars, restaurants, and concerts with no vaccine requirement, does it make sense to lock students out of each other’s residence halls? I don’t think so. You might disagree, and that’s fine.This is what I mean when I say we need a long-term plan. We need to decide, as a school, what we value. Maybe this means we decide that a slightly increased risk of infection is worth the benefits to our school culture — after all, we decide things are worth the risk all the time. Letting Swatties drive vans of fellow students around comes with some risk of a deadly crash, but we’ve decided that the benefits that come with giving student clubs easy access to transportation are worth it. Yet we also require students to get certified beforehand, even if that sometimes causes inconvenience. What’s the equivalent middle ground for COVID? It probably won’t make everyone happy, but at the very least, an internally consistent COVID policy would be a major improvement on the hodgepodge we have now. So, instead of slinging blame or accusations at each other (or worse, just unquestioningly obeying official diktat), let’s at least try to decide what we want in the first place.