On Saturday, September 4, the University issued a statement via email about updates regarding COVID-19 policies. The statement included the elimination of University-provided isolation rooms for students infected but unable to go home to quarantine, COVID-19 tests mandated for all students the week before all students being back on campus (other than student athletes, in accordance with NCAA guidelines), and a refund of the testing payment unvaccinated students incurred at the beginning of the semester.
The email also included a reminder that all students, faculty, and staff who are medically able to be fully vaccinated are required to do so by October 5, and anyone who enters a University building, other than one’s own residence hall, must have a mask on at all times.
These updates are in response to the Delta variant’s higher contamination rate and the University community’s almost 100% vaccination rate in the near future, meaning because the strain spreads easier the original strand, there is no reasonable way to create another Bubble or maintain a community without the threat and high likelihood of coming in contact with, potentially contracting, and possibly spreading the virus.
Instead of creating more rigorous constraints like the two previous semesters, the University decided to negotiate with the potential longevity and the availability of an adequate vaccine. The policies were “crafted by the University Cabinet, after consulting with people both within and outside the University, including public health professionals,” stated the University Cabinet. The vaccines were cited as a “game-changer,” and “miraculous,” and the reason updates were made possible.
While these adjustments were created in response to the endemic aspect of the virus and the increased vaccination rate of the campus, and diminish a lot of the waiting anxiety, many students are still anxious about their personal safety in relation to contracting and potentially spreading COVID around campus.
These fears are especially pertinent in terms of a lack of testing, which could result in a lack of confirmation of contraction, meaning a student could have the virus, not know because they present as asymptomatic but still inadvertently spread it to an immunocompromised friend after sharing a meal, fellow resident after using a communal bathroom, or roommate after doing homework within feet of each other.
A main concern for many is a lack of isolation housing for those who do contract the virus, vaccinated or not. Many students are from out-of-state or do not have a home they are able to return to because of distance or personal difficulties. This means students who contract the virus but do not have anywhere to go must expose their roommate to the virus until they are well, at which point the roommate is likely to be ill as well.
The University Cabinet explained this decision, stating: “We are still asking students who test positive to isolate themselves. We have encouraged students to go home if they are able to. The spaces that the University used last year are back in business and are being used for their original purpose. The eight beds that we had in a rental house were only intended to be temporary for students who tested positive at the beginning of the academic year. That space was never intended to be available all semester, as we announced over the summer.”
Students who do not or cannot leave campus after testing positive are also still allowed to go to McClurg Dining Hall to get meals, where the rest of the University community eats most meals.
However, this approach is similar to those many other universities are taking in trying to figure out how to navigate a new constant.
Rhodes College, for example, is also requiring students, faculty, and staff to be fully vaccinated by September 30, however they are providing isolation housing for those who cannot return, preparing take-out meals for students in isolation, and testing all members of the college community to continue to be tested every other week.
Berry College is not requiring vaccination, however masking indoors is mandated, students and faculty who are not vaccinated will be tested regularly, and a randomized sample group of vaccinated students and faculty will be tested periodically. They are not providing isolation housing but are requiring those who test positive to isolate off-campus.
Sewanee lies in the middle of the two approaches for institutions of similar communities.
Additionally, the decisions and policies have not been haphazardly created- “The Cabinet began discussion policies over the summer, and continues to evaluate our COVID-19 policies weekly.” The bubble strategy, or something similar to it, would be inappropriate and ineffective for the rates of transmission of the Delta variant, and, the Cabinet continues, “The combination of required vaccinations and masks- as long as vaccines continue to protect against serious illness and hospitalization-makes it possible for students to have some degree of freedom.”
To ensure the effectiveness of these policies, the University Cabinet encourages the community to continue to mask indoors, “in particular in public places,” at parties, and “It would also be helpful if everyone wore masks when off-campus, as well.” Additionally, masking in residence halls is highly recommended but is not required because “Requiring masks in residence halls, as we did last year, was a very difficult policy to enforce.”
The Cabinet continued: “Consistent with our University value of ‘community,’ we should all be mindful in our personal decisions of the fact that there are some people unable to receive vaccines. This is why masking will continue to matter for the foreseeable future. Students and community members should also visit their health care providers or be tested if feeling sick.”