Gart: Nothing To Sneeze At

Dartmouth’s intentional ignorance is a COVID-19 strategy that should thrill the student body — and yet, some of us are still complaining.

by Jeremy Gart | 1/18/22 4:00am

Criticizing Dartmouth is, admittedly, pretty easy. 

As a student body struggling through a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, we have every right to be angry. Over the past two years, Dartmouth’s administration has repeatedly mishandled tragedy, and acted inappropriately in the face of adversity. The College is run by a small group of individuals making an exorbitant amount of money, and the voice of the student body has long been drowned out by donation dollars. In many ways, it is the duty of the opinion section to wield a piercing saber of criticism to express the frustrations of the student body with the way Dartmouth is run. I have critiqued, and will continue to critique, the actions of the administration. 

But it’s also crucial to acknowledge what Dartmouth does right. So far this term, the administration has performed an extraordinary tightrope walk in terms of COVID-19 policy, and in doing so, has highlighted Dartmouth as a leader among its peers. Yes, there are still flaws in the College’s plan that this infuriatingly slippery pandemic continues to expose, but recognizing our relative success is important in providing an example of our expectations for how this school ought to be run. And so far, we’re kicking butt. 

Through carefully timed, almost acrobatic administrative maneuvers, Dartmouth has been able to deliver a close-to-entirely normal winter term to its students thus far. For starters, our vaccination rates are near 100%, a credit to the College’s willingness to mandate vaccines and boosters, as well as provide on-campus clinics. But the term’s successes extend beyond the shots. While peer institutions extended their virtual learning periods at the beginning of the term, Dartmouth made the brave decision to prioritize the mental health of its students and forge ahead with an in-person winter. Last year, draconian COVID-19 policies were put into place that choked the very life out of the College — but this time around, Dartmouth seems determined to change its tune. In an email sent to campus on January 12th, interim provost David Kotz wrote that the “decision to prioritize in-person [activities] is directly connected to the imperative of preserving the mental and physical health of our students.” These words should not be lost on us: Dartmouth really does seem to be learning from its mistakes.

Crucially, the College seems to be well aware of just how infectious the omicron variant really is. While other schools are shutting their doors in a desperate bid to control the spread, Dartmouth has maintained realistic expectations for this term’s COVID-19 numbers. When the first spike began, an email from Student Assembly assured students that this surge in cases was expected and not a surprise to the administration. Yes, classes are constructed in a way that makes an online transition easy, but this doesn’t point ominously towards a virtual future — instead, it’s a reassurance of quality framework for students and professors that do end up coming down with the more-infectious-than-ever virus. Dartmouth is beginning to categorize COVID-19 as an “endemic” disease rather than a pandemic, and, in doing so, is allowing for a shift in the university’s perspective on their own policies. COVID-19 isn’t going to magically disappear — and Dartmouth is well aware. 

When looking at peer institutions, it becomes obvious that virtual classes simply do not make a dent in the spread of omicron. Northwestern University, where classes are completely online, has seen upwards of 900 cases over the past week. Duke University has had over 700 positive cases and the University of Pennsylvania has had a whopping 1,280. Clearly, the classroom is simply not where COVID-19 is spreading — a fact that even the most clueless administrators should already know.

So instead, Dartmouth has adopted a policy of “willful ignorance.” They may be unable to publicly declare the pandemic over and parade through the streets, but by recognizing the inevitability of the omicron variant, Dartmouth has designed policies that allow students to take whatever risks they see fit without severe repercussions. Yes, some silly standards still exist (see: the gym), but the majority of Dartmouth has successfully adapted itself to the omicron variant and its new challenges.

Last week, a column in these very pages described the College’s policies as “toothless” and hollow, without any real weight. It pointed out that the College has “opted to publicize stringent rules but not actually carry them out.” While these policies may at first glance seem to make a molehill out of a mountain, I believe that they were intentionally designed in this manner. If students want, they are able to take every meal grab-and-go, avoid social gatherings, attend their classes virtually and water down their chances of contracting COVID-19 to near-zero. On the other hand, the vast majority of the student body, which has seen its collective mental health battered down time and time again, is still able to continue enjoying a relatively normal term. When Dartmouth shut down indoor dining during the first week of the term, it was careful not to prohibit students from eating around one another. They’ve limited indoor gatherings, but haven’t yet come crashing into any room making more than a decibel of noise. Kotz even stated in an email, verbatim, that “we do not intend to police enforcement” — a far cry from the lockdown police state of fall 2020. 

Dartmouth’s policy this term has been akin to a stern finger wave, followed promptly by a wink. By employing a “just don’t let me see it” mentality, the College has finally created a successful reopening plan that has made most students pretty damn happy. 

I’ll say it begrudgingly, but with a twinge of pride: Keep up the good work, Phil. 

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!