Dokken: A Line in the Sand
Dartmouth should not use the reinstatement of the indoor masking policy to rationalize more drastic COVID-19 measures.
Yesterday, Dartmouth announced that the College would be reinstating its indoor masking requirement in light of the Hanover Selectboard’s decision to renew its indoor masking policy on Aug. 4. Interim provost David Kotz and executive vice president Rick Mills also stated in a campus-wide email that the decision was made to “avoid future disruptions” and offer the community “the earliest possible return to normalcy.”
While both decisions are likely a preventative measure in response to the growing presence of the Delta variant in the United States, it is critical that Dartmouth does not use this moment to revert to its previous, draconian COVID-19 policies. I say this not because I believe that the reinstatement of the mask policy is entirely unwarranted or ridiculous, but rather because implementing more drastic measures would completely overlook Dartmouth’s progress in combating COVID-19.
The concern that the College is considering more serious measures — widespread among the student body — stems from its predilection to conform its COVID-19 policies with those of peer institutions. Even in the email announcing the decision, Mills and Kotz acknowledged that this decision was made in light of similar policies from peer institutions. However, those peer institutions are operating within vastly different contexts than Dartmouth. Basing our own policies on those from peer institutions, particularly in regard to COVID-19, is nonsensical.
Unlike most of the Ivy League, Dartmouth is located in a rural setting. Its overall community has a vaccination rate of 82%, on-campus community members have a vaccination rate of 93%, and cases have remained low throughout the summer despite the fact that all COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted since June 23. Its community vaccination rates are similar to those of peer institutions such as Brown University — which currently boasts a vaccination rate of approximately 91% among students and 94% among faculty and staff — but these numbers have different implications. For example, Brown is located in Providence, a city more than 40 times more densely populated than Hanover. Furthermore, Providence County is just 56% fully vaccinated, compared to Hanover’s 67%.
This is not a one-off example. Every other Ivy League school that has reinstated its mask mandate — all but Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania — has a surrounding population density far higher than Hanover’s. Given this dramatic difference, there is a much greater risk for community transmission of COVID-19 at any other Ivy League school than there is at Dartmouth, regardless of vaccination rates. In this sense, Dartmouth has an advantage due to its rural location and small population, which decreases the risk of COVID-19 transmission relative to its peer institutions.
Another factor that would call into question any decision to reinstate the College’s previous social distancing guidelines is COVID-19 case data from the seven weeks this summer in which there were few, if any, cases, without any social distancing or masking guidelines. While the Delta variant has wreaked havoc across much of the country, the Dartmouth community has remained relatively unscathed.
While there were a handful of cases reported throughout the term, the high rate of vaccination means that, even in the unlikely case that transmission levels climb on campus, it is extremely unlikely that anyone would get very sick, if they even exhibit symptoms. All three available COVID-19 vaccines significantly decrease the likelihood of getting severely sick and considerably decrease the risk of even exhibiting symptoms.
None of this is meant to say that the reinstatement of the masking policy is an entirely unfounded request of students. However, given that support for the reinstatement of the indoor masking policy is limited at most — and that’s being generous, given reactions on social media among students — it would be entirely inappropriate to go any further. As of Wednesday, there are only ten confirmed active cases, just three among students, in the community, which, given the absence of any COVID-19 precautions throughout the term and the resurgence of COVID-19 around the country, suggests that a term without COVID-19 precautions is possible and will not place the community at significant risk.
An alternative — or a helpful addition — to the indoor mask mandate would be to increase surveillance of COVID-19 beyond the current once-a-month testing requirement for vaccinated students. This would provide the College with a better understanding of the COVID-19 landscape on campus and a greater ability to stop an outbreak before it spirals out of control. Additionally, it would require little effort on campus while cultivating the sense of normalcy that so many students have embraced this term.
As we approach fall term, it is vital that we not act in haste any time there is a slight shift in cases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts have reported that new strains of COVID-19 will likely continue to emerge in the coming years. As such, the College must learn how to handle them with logic and reason. Moving toward even more stringent policies in light of minor shifts in COVID-19 cases would be a grave error. Whether we like it or not, COVID-19 is here to stay, and the College must learn how to differentiate between an imminent threat to public health and minor fluctuations in cases. Otherwise, the administration risks further alienating students — and it’s skating on thin ice as is.