Editor’s note: All opinion pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author.
As individuals and as an institution, we have all had to make several seemingly impossible choices in the face of the COVID crisis. In light of choices already made, and with an eye to the future, I encourage the Haverford community to redouble our commitment to making community-minded choices. Together, we have the power to foster a safe and inclusive environment on campus—even in trying times.
For both educational and economic reasons, Haverford College has chosen to reopen for on-campus, in-person education this fall. While the administration’s stated intent is to make Haverford maximally accessible, choosing to operate at near-full capacity effectively denies some students the choice to return to campus. Students with underlying conditions, who may have risked returning to campus if Haverford had chosen to operate at a reduced capacity, cannot make that choice when their likelihood of infection is higher as a result of increased on-campus density. Operating at limited capacity, however, would also deny some students—likely many more students—the choice to return to campus. This choice is clearly a very difficult one: sacrificing an on-campus semester for those with underlying conditions who cannot risk returning for the greater number of students who can is inherently unjust, but so too is the alternative, and there do not appear to be any obvious better options.
Since choosing to reopen the campus for the fall, Haverford’s administration has worked hard to provide a foundation for a safe and productive semester for the entire community. Despite the College’s ongoing efforts to ensure students’ health and success, some of my peers have criticized the administration’s choices and admonished them for not guaranteeing our safety. These criticisms are misguided and unwarranted: even without a public health crisis like COVID, there is no world in which the college—or any college—can guarantee students’ safety. It is the administration’s role to provide a basic structure and clear guidelines for us to follow together to realize a safe and successful semester.
Let us recognize and applaud the remarkable efforts of the College to meet this goal. Despite embarrassing, corrupt, and ineffective attempts to control the virus by the federal government and a lack of clear, effective leadership, in just a few months, the College has reconfigured existing classrooms and created entirely new spaces for learning at a safe distance. The faculty have made classes and labs fully digitally accessible, and the Dining Center staff has worked hard to make their facilities and their food service safe and efficient. For perspective, remember that Liberty University in Virginia attempted to reopen in March, that Notre Dame and UNC have had to revert to digital learning (ND for at least two weeks, UNC for the semester), and as of September 6, over 1,300 students at the University of Alabama have contracted the virus. No matter how many guidelines or rules the College creates or how strictly they are enforced, our community’s safety will depend, first and foremost, on the choices we students make and the behaviors we practice on a daily basis to minimize our community’s risk of exposure to COVID.
At Haverford, there are those of us who, because we cannot afford to be a financial burden on our families at home, have had to return to campus. There are those of us who, because we do not have a safe or productive environment or home away from Haverford, have had to return to campus. There are those of us who, because of our learning disabilities fare better in face-to-face educational environments than in virtual ones, have had to return to campus. And there are those of us who, despite having comfortable, safe, productive environments at home, have chosen to return to campus. Though the circumstances which compel us to return to campus may not be under our control, what is under our control is whether we choose to let COVID spread and how we treat each other at Haverford. I ask that all of us, and especially those of us who have chosen to return to campus, act with trust, concern, and respect for the well-being of our community as a whole.
Remember that getting COVID is no joke. There are Olympic-caliber athletes who, months after testing positive, are still recovering from the virus and have yet to return to full training. There are young, otherwise healthy people across the world who are dying. Moreover, getting COVID at Haverford means putting your community at risk. Again, for some of us, an early end to the in-person semester means returning to an unsafe or unstable home, while for others it means imposing on our families a serious financial burden or leaving campus without any safe place to go. While the College has said that barring external legal requirements for Haverford to close, student residences will remain open for those who have nowhere else to go, as those of us who have lived on campus throughout the entirety of the COVID crisis thus far can attest, living on a minimal-capacity campus presents its own serious mental health problems of isolation and loneliness.
We students must not forget that our actions will affect not only each other, but also the faculty and staff, who are more likely than we are to face serious health complications from COVID. While we students may operate with relative security living on campus away from home and without fear of exposing our families to the virus, our choices have ripple effects through the Haverford community. Faculty and staff return home to their children, parents, and housemates every night, potentially bringing the virus they might get from us home with them.
People are human and mistakes will happen; fortunately, this isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. The more that we do to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID on campus, the better. “Mistakes,” decisions to flout the public health guidelines that Haverford has put in place, should not be interpreted as actions made with malicious intent, but instead are best understood as choices made in response to real social and psychological needs. Shaming and blaming have been shown to be ineffective methods of public health intervention, and I ask that all of us—faculty, staff, and students—make efforts to understand one another and to treat everyone with patience, forgiveness, and respect. An effective response to this crisis requires balancing a rigorous personal code and a softer, more open and forgiving interpersonal ethic.
Not only must we commit to doing our utmost to protect our physical health, but we must also go to added lengths to consider the mental health of everyone in our community. “Social distancing” is an egregious misnomer; why have we all been exhorted from the outset to practice social distancing, when the obvious imperative was to conceive of new forms of sociality and community as we were obligated to undertake spatial distancing? With decreased social interaction, especially the types of interactions that define us so deeply as human beings (both intimate connections and collective experiences like parties, concerts, and events), our mental health is bound to suffer. Let us commit to creating community and finding meaningful connections from a physical distance or through digital platforms. We need to take care of each other and ourselves: I’d like to encourage us to check in with friends and hall-mates more than we might have in the past, and to seek out help from available resources on campus like CAPS if we feel in need.
Some of us have offered skeptical and cynical prognostications about the chances of an in-person semester at Haverford succeeding. But now is not the time for cynicism; now is the time to rise to the challenge, to act confidently and responsibly, for the betterment of all. Now is not the time to vilify any group on campus or any subset of the student body; now is the time to recognize that each of our individual choices on a daily basis affects the health and well-being of our community. Now is the time to work together, to act with trust, concern, and respect every step of the way.
If we’re going to succeed, we must maintain our collective commitment to meet this challenge head-on. As both Dean Bylander and President Raymond have repeatedly stressed, this semester will be trying for all of us. But it offers an opportunity for all of us to think seriously about how our choices reflect our values of trust, concern, and respect, and to live more intentionally in our deeply changed world.
Let’s do this, together.