As we saw an uptick in close contacts with positive Covid-19 cases on campus, with two positive cases forcing 23 close-contact students into quarantine housing, the Editorial Board reflected on the reasons why students seem to be having trouble following college safety guidelines. While student negligence is inexcusable, as we discussed in last week’s editorial, it is still worth considering what the college can do to discourage negligent behavior beyond merely threatening punishment. The shift of social dynamics in the pandemic version of this community has fundamental impacts on students’ wellbeing. So in addressing student rule-breaking on campus, college seems to be missing an essential part of the strategy: rather than scold students from breaking rules after the fact, the college should find ways to make rule-breaking unappealing in the first place.
We’re often told that college is supposed to be the best four years of our lives, and many, if not all, people who truly believe that expression loved college because of its social elements. People go to college to learn new things and meet new people, but they also go to have fun with other young people before enduring the difficulty of entering the full-time workforce. Obviously, the traditional college experience is off-limits during a pandemic semester, even more so during its first few weeks, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try, as an institution, to give students the sense of joy and community that they will prevent them from disobeying protocols look back on fondly long after they’ve left (and that will prevent them from disobeying safety protocols).
So far, the college seems to have tried to do this mostly through optional Zoom lectures and events, but most students are sick of being in Zoom calls all day, every day and avoid these extra sessions altogether. This is an issue that affects students both on and off campus, as most of our permitted social interaction this year has occurred in the limited space provided by the Zoom classes we take every week or in the small pods we live in without any access to new people or fresh ideas.
Of course, there are some simple solutions that would go at least part of the way in solving these problems. The college has already opened up some extra indoor space for studying, hanging out and engaging in other socially-distanced activities. Beyond the constraints of walls, the school could organize nature days for students on campus, perhaps having organized hiking groups on the trails around campus or just encouraging students to spend time at Book & Plow Farm with some fun outdoor activities. It could support more art and music events on campus, perhaps with students playing from the Val terrace or even a stage on one of the quads, with plenty of space for socially distanced students on the grass to watch or listen. The college’s effort can also extend beyond providing physical space for events and activities. Handing out supplies and hosting workshops that support students’ hobby-making would enrich the time that we spend indoors in a socially-distanced manner.
One of our editors’ favorite events over the past semester was Fall Fest, with students on campus interacting in a larger, yet still safe setting, and students off campus receiving letters and gifts reminding them of the loving community they are a part of. The notable absence of WinterFest or any visible WinterFest planning this year seems to be a missed opportunity for invoking the same sort of communal feeling that makes students proud to be Amherst students.
The visibility of any such planning (or lack thereof) matters, too. The first few weeks of the semester are necessarily isolating and a little bit dreadful — that is just the nature of safety during the pandemic (though February in Western Massachusetts is admittedly a struggle in non-pandemic times too). But clueing students in to what we have to look forward to in the future would be a great way of imbuing people with the necessary confidence to hold out and bide our time in the present. Furthermore, transparency on the activities being considered or planned would allow student input that could help make those activities a success, and even help the school avoid wasting resources on unpopular ideas.
We should remind ourselves of the fact that, while things are not at all the way we had hoped they’d be this year, we can still make use of this opportunity to engage with our community in new and exciting ways. For example, the dreaded athlete/non-athlete divide should be virtually nonexistent in a year where the cancellation of sports seasons has forced us all to be equally as isolated and lazy. Successful communal events could help bridge that gap by creating relationships over activities that we’re all equally unfamiliar with, leading to a better athlete/non-athlete relationship in the post-pandemic future.
Moreover, the necessary distance we keep from others can in turn bring us closer to the vast, beautiful land around us. The Outing Club has planned a cross-country skiing event on the bike trail for this upcoming Saturday. We hope to see similar initiatives from clubs and other student organizations in encouraging more engagement with nature.
What we’re really asking for is transparency and creativity. We are all a part of this experience together, and we should try our hardest to make it the best experience that we can. Only the administration has enough sway to make large events a success, and we would love to see more new events attempted — they may not all be perfect, but it’s better to try than resign ourselves to a purely virtual school year.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 10; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 2)