When I received word of the September 4 COVID policy update, I was living in an isolation space provided by the University. I’d gotten two doses of Moderna in the spring, but upon my return to campus, I’d contracted what eventually proved to be more than a mild, ordinary cold. Everyone I know sympathized with my disappointment about having to miss a week and a half of school, sports, and activities, but all were relieved that I could safely remove myself from campus life. Though it was my body that was sick, more lives than my own were affected by my diagnosis: several of the people I interact with regularly are at high risk for more serious illness, and many were simply struck by the vague anxiety that the past year and a half has instilled in us. And yes, really, a year and a half is a long time; in spite of illness, in spite of anxiety, our relationship to COVID- 19 will change. However, as we move forward, we will need the University’s administrative support more than ever. More specifically, it is essential that the University return to its policy of providing isolation housing for those who are unable to isolate off- campus.
It is near impossible to imagine a present moment without the illness that rushed, flood-like, through the geography of our lives, depositing new customs and obliterating others, rearranging all it touched. Now that we are trying to understand our next steps through this landscape, I find it hard to avoid feeling a little fear and wonder at the things we will return to, and those that will never be the same. This transition into the next phase of public health policy will be– already is– strange. There is no getting around that. I hope, however, that it will be distinguished by an amplification of mutual investment in the mental and physical health of the community. Sewanee’s town and campus have no choice but to navigate this territory together, regardless of age or occupation.
Our campus community is characterized by the diversity, hierarchy, and intentionality of its relationships, but especially by its (literal) closeness. I cannot count the number of times I have heard Sewanee referred to as a “petri dish.” In single-family homes, we can be careful about contagious diseases in a way that is simply impossible here. That we break bread and brush teeth and study and dance in the same (often small) spaces as so many of our peers is a condition of college life that I cherish. It is also a unique disaster for disease management. The specificity of the Sewanee pandemic must be acknowledged, and while this fact shouldn’t necessarily lead us toward stricter measures, it argues for less than a total abandonment of certain public health services.
The predicted increase of cases would seriously strain the University’s resources, personally and financially, if every person with COVID was given isolation housing here. That is not what I am suggesting; any and every positive case who can go home should be directed to do so. But without any isolation housing whatsoever, people who can’t go home for practical reasons (and the roommates of those people) are made to bear an unfair burden. No one deserves to be knowingly and constantly exposed to COVID-19. Yes, many of us are young and otherwise healthy, but even then, the virus’s hold on our imaginations is such that confronting it so directly creates a far heavier psychological burden than illnesses we’re used to, like the flu. We simply haven’t collectively reached the level of acceptance that signals a full adjustment to endemicity. To get there, we will have to get out of our comfort zones, but we can’t skip over the reality of the current moment. And that reality is that people whose roommates or suitemates tested positive are living with unnecessary stress. Some are sleeping on their friends’ floors to avoid spending the night just feet away from an active case of COVID. The disappearance of the University’s isolation housing is just not effective in encouraging students to embrace coming phases of virus acceptance.
The idiosyncrasies of what was once our “bubble” aren’t just a liability: they can aid us in our public health efforts, if used to everyone’s advantage. This moment of transition is an opportunity to renew our commitments to each other: an institution is there to offer structured support to its community in times of sickness and in times of health, and we should engage actively and positively with its efforts. I obviously don’t believe that the University’s policies are beyond criticism, but we should keep in mind that there are real people actively shaping the faceless concept of “an institution”. I read the Sewanee Mountain Messenger’s coverage of a recent Community Council meeting, in which the Vice-Chancellor expressed exhaustion with the “sheer level of anger” he faced last year. I know it is hard not to be angry. I can’t tell anyone what to feel. We should remember, though, that the crushing energy of our distress, frustration, and anxiety doesn’t disappear when we release it; too often, other members of our community absorb the impact.
It feels a little odd to make participation in community the subject of a piece arguing for the right to remove ourselves from it. In isolation, though, we understand our need for each other through sacrifice. We are not just here because we pay money or get paid; it is a near-universally acknowledged understanding that “the college experience” is more than the attainment of a degree. In some ways, living in community is all about having problems with each other. Last spring, Sewanee was made to reckon (again) with its past and present relationship with racism; COVID policy has been consistently debated throughout the last year. I don’t expect total unity regarding our evolving relationship with COVID, but I do expect a certain baseline of institutional support, so we can talk about how to move forward kindly and without avoidable infection or distress. I am asking the University to help us help each other, and give us the resources we need to do the right thing. The process of transition will be as tricky and nuanced as we are, but with cooperation, it is possible.