On Dec. 17, interim provost David Kotz and executive vice president Rick Mills announced several new additions to Dartmouth’s COVID-19 policies, which will now include a booster shot requirement for all community members as well as a ban on “social gatherings” and a shift to grab-and-go dining for the first two weeks of winter term. This move comes as multiple peer institutions, including Harvard University, Stanford University and Yale University, have decided to delay the start of in-person classes.
This announcement also follows nearly two years of vague emails from our own administration that have left students with far more questions than answers, during which time COVID-19 restrictions were put in place that damaged other aspects of students’ physical and mental health. The result? A culture of fear on campus as students were disappeared for seemingly unknown infractions, a gnawing distrust of the administration and a compounding mental health crisis that saw three first-year students die by suicide. None of it stopped an outbreak from fully shuttering campus in February 2021.
Last week’s email, in the context of the decisions at other top universities, dragged fears of a return to last year back to the fore and instilled a creeping panic that the College may once again lock students in their rooms. It should be noted that Kotz and Mills say that their goal is to “maintain in-person classroom learning and laboratory research and to keep campus as open as possible while also supporting the physical and mental health of our community.” This acknowledgement is an improvement over last year’s administration’s neglect of mental health, a demonstration that Dartmouth seems to know the damage its opaque approach wrought.
But it is not enough. The administration must state, firmly and clearly, that returning to remote classes is the last measure they will implement to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
On top of being despised by students and faculty alike, online classes ate away at many students’ mental health last year. Coupled with other policies such as limitations on social gatherings and to-go dining, online classes stripped students of the ability to engage in the type of in-person social interactions necessary to maintain their mental wellbeing. The return of in-person learning, bringing with it the ability to see professors and interact directly with classmates, has been a major boon for morale. To throw that away while athletes practice maskless, admissions tours continue in person and most students test only once a week would be disastrous. As an academic institution first and foremost, the College must do everything in its power to preserve its academic programs, and it must communicate that intention to the campus community so that students, faculty and staff can plan accordingly.
Speaking of clarity, the new restrictions Kotz and Mills announced present incredible logistical and practical questions. The social gathering restrictions, for example, will only apply to gatherings that are not “academic or academic-related.” The vagueness of this category means that this policy can go one of two ways, depending on implementation. A harsh crackdown on anything vaguely “social” will leave students in fear of accidentally violating the policy, further eroding trust. A lax enforcement policy allows student groups and organizations to disregard the rules as merely “suggestions” from Dartmouth, eroding the College’s ability to put emergency restrictions in place should an outbreak arise.
The move to grab-and-go dining is equally mystifying: Dartmouth Dining Services faced challenges serving around 2,000 students in a “de-densified” campus last year, and now it must offer takeout to roughly double that number of students. The administration also appears to have given little consideration to where students will eat: Students cannot eat in dining halls while they are closed, and they cannot eat in classrooms — per many professors’ post-COVID-19 syllabi — or in most academic buildings. Notably, students also cannot eat outside when it’s 10 degrees and snowing. And, many students cannot eat in their dorms because they live too far away to come back to central campus in time for their classes. Clarifying how students are expected to eat — or enacting enhanced public health measures for fully-open dining facilities — is a must for an administration that claims to support students’ physical health.
We recognize the precarious juggling act the College finds itself faced with: In a matter of three weeks, the omicron variant went from almost nonexistent to accounting for over 70% of all new COVID-19 infections nationwide. Changing some plans for the winter was inevitable, and students should recognize this. At the same time, the College cannot overstep its authority by ignoring students’ mental health concerns, as it has time and time again.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it — so, as we enter a new year, let’s leave the failures of 2020 and 2021 behind. Articulating that remote classes are the last resort and ensuring that the dining and gathering rules have clear, understandable bounds will support students’ mental health, just as Kotz and Mills hope to do. Additionally, reducing uncertainty by offering clear, well-thought out explanations for why policies are put in place and how they will work may ease students’ anxieties about the upcoming term and encourage them to take emergency measures more seriously. Without these changes, we risk watching both the latest variant and yet another collapse of mental health devastate campus as we know it.
The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.