As online classes resume this week, it is extremely crucial for the college community to recognize that beyond exciting optimism, a return to campus also comes with tremendous levels of responsibility.
The college showed the strength of its pandemic planning last fall, keeping on-campus Covid-19 cases mostly in check with a remarkably low positivity rate for the majority of the semester. The victory cannot be divorced from the rigorous testing, the compliance with public health guidelines and the taxing isolation. Currently, Amherst has approximately 1,120 students on campus, about two-thirds of the entire student body. Amid this advance towards normalcy, there is no better time to interrogate our role in keeping each other safe and holding ourselves accountable, especially when the current situation of the town and outside community raises concerns about threats to our public health.
Before we even arrived on campus, news of a UMass outbreak surfaced as UMass students returned to school for classes on Feb. 1 and neglected the safety procedures recommended by the school. The university currently has 342 active cases, according to the UMass Amherst Covid-19 Dashboard, and is beginning the decline from an average rate of 48 new cases per day over the past week, which peaked at 125 new cases on Feb. 8. Amherst students, many of whom are now back on campus for classes that started Feb. 15, seem not to have taken the lesson to heart.
Since the end of January term, the college has reported three positive on-campus student tests and 15 positive tests from students living off-campus in the town of Amherst. While 18 cases may not seem that high, proportionally, the college has nearly reached the level of the UMass outbreak, with 1 percent of the small college’s student body testing positive compared to 1.2 percent of the much larger university’s.
A recent email from Dean of Students Liz Agosto suggests the causes for the college’s surge in cases are the same as those at UMass — students simply don’t care enough to follow the stricter rules each institution attempted to implement for the first two weeks of having students back on campus.
Unfortunately, just as in the rest of the world, the longer we fail to follow the guidelines that would reduce the spread of the Covid-19, the longer we draw out the pandemic, and the more we have to wait until returning to business as normal (or as normal as possible).
And extending the pandemic means more than just prolonged discomfort. Since the start of the pandemic, the town of Amherst, which relies primarily on college students to support its businesses, has seen a 41 percent decline in shopping at local retail stores and restaurants. The town has lost over 2,000 jobs, and unemployment has nearly doubled from 2.6 percent to 5.1 percent. As in the rest of the country, this has been hardest on Amherst’s minimum wage workers, women and people of color, who have faced the highest level of layoffs. In a year when The Student has been focused on working to mend the college’s relationship with the town and fighting for a more equitable society, it is even harder to miss the clear issues that student negligence poses on both fronts.
Given the complexity of the moment, especially when the pandemic has continued for so long, we understand how challenging it can be to forgo social interactions. We know how hard, isolating and sometimes even desolate it can be sitting in a room all day staring at a screen. Still, we must be willing to sacrifice some personal freedom for the sake of our community’s safety. The establishment of even a semblance of normalcy is only possible with caution and a staunch sense of responsibility.
As we remain in stage two quarantine until next week, we must acknowledge the gravity of this transition to a safe hybrid on-campus experience. While the college continues to strive for the socio-emotional wellbeing of its community, we all share the responsibility of taking care of the physical health of this community and the town it occupies. To our fellow students: Please remember, guidelines are not just formalities that can be gamed –– they should be followed even when nobody’s watching.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 11; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 1)