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Unanswered Letters, Unanswered Concerns

Editor’s note: All opinion pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author. This letter was originally sent to Wendy Raymond on August 5, who has not responded to date.

Dear President Raymond,

I am writing to you because I am concerned. 

I am concerned for the lives and well-being of my classmates, my friends, and the Haverford community as a whole, and I am concerned because the actions of the College don’t seem to echo my concern. Above all, I am concerned about the willingness and readiness with which you admitted, in your July 30 email, that COVID-19 being brought onto campus is not just likely, but nearly inevitable. I remind you that this is a deadly virus, and that transmission rates of the virus are climbing in the US. Like you said, “COVID on campus is not a matter of if but when, and how often and how many will be impacted”. Is it, then, not a matter of if but when, and how often and how many students, faculty, and community members will die of the virus? Are you as ready to admit that our peers, our professors, and our friends may die of this virus as you are to admit that the virus will likely find its way onto campus?

Cases in Pennsylvania are rising, too, though not at rates seen in other parts of the country. As I’m sure you’re aware, on July 28, two days before you sent that email, the five-day average of new cases in Delaware County hit 14.8 per 100,000 people, the highest numbers in the county since May 25 (source). Since then, cases have not dropped significantly, and as of right now they remain at 11.6 new cases a day, which the Harvard Global Health Institute classifies as “dangerous levels” of community spread (source).

In your July 23 list of reasons why Haverford is not like other schools that are closing, you mentioned that Haverford has a high number of singles, which makes us more equipped to deal with viruses like this one. However, regardless of how many singles there are, I worry that dormitory bathrooms are very likely to facilitate the spread of the virus. It is difficult to brush your teeth, wash your face, or shower with a mask on, and aerosolized COVID-19 can remain in the air for up to three hours. In the North Dorms, up to 20 students share one bathroom—if one infected student uses that bathroom, the entire floor may have been exposed. If five students, each living on a different floor, are positive for the virus, this very quickly becomes more than 5% of on-campus enrollment. I’m wondering how the College is planning to mitigate the spread of the virus in these notoriously poorly-ventilated bathrooms.

Additionally, many students will be traveling to Haverford, often from areas with much higher infection rates. Have you considered the likelihood that students will become infected on the plane, in a highway rest stop, on a bus, and so on? If they are tested immediately upon arriving on campus, the possibility that they test negative and then become positive within the next two weeks is very present. How does Haverford plan on preventing these students from spreading the virus once they arrive on campus, especially in bathrooms? Will students be retested a week after arriving on campus to ensure that they haven’t been exposed to the virus in their travels?

Smith College recently announced that it would be going completely online for the fall semester. This is a peer institution of ours, and I trust you’ve read their statement, but I wanted to highlight one of their reasons for not welcoming students back to campus: 

Potential for rapid asymptomatic transmission: Studies have shown that 40 percent of infected individuals never manifest symptoms but can still spread the virus. Even in the context of rigorous, frequent COVID-19 screening, such as we were prepared to administer, the potential for asymptomatic spread on an open residential campus like ours is high.”

As far as I can tell, Smith’s plan for screening for the virus was very similar to Haverford’s, and so I’m wondering what Haverford is doing to track asymptomatic spread: What is our testing capacity? How often will asymptomatic students be tested? These are questions that, as far as I can tell, have been answered very vaguely by College administration to date, and I am wondering if there are any concrete numbers with regards to the frequency with which students will be tested.

Finally, I wanted to highlight another part of Smith’s statement:

“We have a civic duty to the communities in which we live and work. By limiting the number of students and employees on campus, we will mitigate the potential exposure of many people to the virus—not only those connected to Smith but also those living in the greater Northampton area. By asking students to study at home this fall, we will reduce travel in and out of Massachusetts and surrounding states, thereby supporting essential public health efforts to reduce transmission of the virus. As critical as higher education may be, none of us wants it to be the driver of a second wave of virus transmission in our host communities.” 

What sets us apart from Smith? They are situated in a county with half as many coronavirus cases per hundred thousand residents as Delaware County, as of now (source). They do not have significantly more students than we do.

In conclusion, I’m worried that Haverford is not as prepared to handle an outbreak of the virus as we keep claiming. I am hoping this is not the case, and that Haverford has addressed all of these concerns, but nothing the College has released as of right now has made me any less worried that, by the end of September, we will all be sent home. Please do not hesitate to let me know if I have said anything incorrect or have made any incorrect assumptions about our plan for the fall.

To paraphrase Smith’s statement: although education is important, and we all wish it could be possible to be together on campus this fall, it is far more important that any preventable deaths be prevented. I sincerely hope that this is something that you have been considering.

I hope you, your family, and Peanut are doing well and staying safe.


Benjamin Klamka

Class of 2022

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