As we all know, the COVID-19 era has brought countless challenges for individuals and society at large. The nuances of this situation are difficult to navigate, and they affect millions of people in different ways: physically, mentally, economically and socially, to say the least. The implications of all of these factors need to be balanced in institutions’ responses to the pandemic.
I am sympathetic to the complications of the situation the College of William and Mary is in right now and has been in since early this year. Undoubtedly, the College will be making hard decisions for months to come. I’m not in a position to heavily criticize these decisions, if only because I’m a college junior with half a philosophy degree. But what people in charge at the College don’t seem to realize is that equal to the importance of the choices they are making is their ability to communicate rules and expectations to the College community, specifically the students who are paying thousands of dollars to be here—or not—this semester. As one of those students, and someone who has traveled literally 7,000 miles away from home to be here at the College, the ambiguity of the College’s expectations so far is something I feel obligated to push back on.
Aug. 21, two days after classes began and a full week or so after freshmen moved onto campus, the Dean of Students sent out an email describing a Zero Tolerance Policy in response to violations of the regulations presented in the Healthy Together Community Commitment. The expectations in the Commitment included wearing a mask, appropriate social distancing (with further description for on-campus students but not for off-campus students), frequent handwashing, participating in testing and staying home when sick. For the record, I happily follow these requirements and have been doing so since March. The problem with them is their lack of specificity. The Student Code of Conduct, cited in this same email from the Dean of Students, prohibits “behaving in a manner that a reasonable person would find alarming or intimidating” or “in a manner that a reasonable person would consider indecent or disorderly.” I hope this isn’t news to the Dean of Students Office, but reasonable people find a wide range of things alarming, intimidating, indecent or disorderly. Vague jargon tells me very little about the practical expectations I need to follow in response to COVID-19.
To its credit, the Dean’s office did explain that gatherings could not exceed 10 people, whether on- or off-campus. The College released a fairly explicit description of the disciplinary consequences for violations to the Community Commitment. This was helpful — but again, this information was given to students a week after freshman move-in and three days after the start of classes, when a large portion (probably the majority) of off-campus students had moved in as well. And again, the pandemic has been an issue since the beginning of 2020. Students are already scared and confused. They deserve to be given information and requirements before the last minute.
Yes, we were given this information eventually, but since then there have been subtle situations where the College has continued its pattern of insufficient communication. Recently, the idea has been circulating that students are not allowed to ride in cars together, despite an absence of concrete communication directly from the College. More notably, the most recent Student Happenings email seemed to alter policies for outdoor exercise.
While previously the College allowed students to participate in rigorous outdoor exercise without wearing a mask, the COVID-19 Response Team slipped “advice” into Student Happenings that masks should be worn whether exercising in or outside. Student Happenings emails are read by a handful of students for information about club events around campus, rather than by everyone for vital information about COVID-19 policy. The ambiguous wording of this “advice,” in addition to the fact that it contradicts previous policy, makes it more confusing whether students are recommended or required to follow the mask guideline. None of us should be worried about being penalized for breaking a rule they didn’t realize existed.
If the College genuinely wants a safe, successful semester, students need clear expectations they can easily abide by. Without the College’s ambiguity at play, awareness and safety will increase.
The more the College communicates, the better we’ll be able to actually be “Healthy Together.”
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