When coronavirus cases first began surging across Connecticut in mid-March, my coworkers and I were told to keep our distance from each other and wipe down workstations frequently. There were 12 of us, crowded into a small room at the top of the Sterling Memorial Library. One of us had just returned from a weeklong cruise. Another had been out sick earlier in the month with a fever and cough. I was eight months pregnant.
We tried our best — pulling the desks further apart, cleaning surfaces, rationing our limited supplies of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. In retrospect, such efforts seem naïve and futile. Measures that would prove effective, like masks and proper ventilation, weren’t even on our radar. Now, I can say that Yale should have closed sooner, that we wasted our time worrying about shared surfaces instead of shared air, that employees with COVID symptoms should have been paid to stay home, with or without a positive test. But it was still March. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.
Yale no longer has that excuse. On August 31, the University opened its doors to more than half of its student body, a move that will inevitably condemn a number of those students to contracting a potentially lethal virus. This is not speculation. It is fact. The administration knows this, which is why they have “The Plan.” According to “The Plan,” students will be tested semiweekly and the University will perform contact tracing. Never mind that such a testing schedule falls short of the recommendations made by the Yale School of Public Health. Never mind that some unenrolled students living off campus will not be subject to semiweekly testing. Never mind that contact tracing, already a difficult practice, will be further complicated by the very nature of campus culture. Yale has tuition money to collect. Yale has a reputation to protect. Yale has a Plan.
It is a bad plan. At colleges across the country, coronavirus cases are surging. Some, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have already closed. Although Connecticut has recovered from its pandemic peak of more than 2,000 cases a day in late April, the numbers are beginning to rise again. The University of Connecticut recently reported 58 new cases on its Storrs campus. Its plan for reopening? Regular testing and contact tracing.
History, science and common sense indicate that another, more severe outbreak in the fall and winter is likely. Coupled with the seasonal flu, health experts fear a “twindemic,” an epidemic of both influenza and coronavirus that will overwhelm hospitals and leave victims of one illness susceptible to the other. Testing twice a week, contact tracing and relying on the good behavior of college students is not nearly enough to combat these rising tides.
But it will not be the administration that drowns in the wake. Instead, hourly staff, temporary workers and the broader New Haven community will assume a disproportionate amount of the risk. Those of us at Yale who cannot work remotely will return to poorly ventilated, decades-old buildings where we will interact directly with students, faculty and other staff. Custodial and dining hall workers will find themselves sharing spaces with maskless individuals. City residents working in the shops, restaurants and cafes surrounding the university will be exposed to hundreds of undergraduates returning from hot spots across the country. Baristas, waiters, cashiers, salesclerks, Uber drivers, delivery workers — who will provide testing, contact tracing and healthcare for them?
What about our families, roommates and neighbors? Most students will return to their dorms at night. But the rest of us live in communities with and among other people. We call New Haven and its surrounding towns home. And those homes are vulnerable. Thirteen percent of the Greater New Haven population lives below the poverty line. One in 20 adults are without health insurance. For better and for worse, Yale is inextricably interwoven with New Haven. The virus doesn’t need to travel far to infect people outside of the university walls. All it needs is one sick or asymptomatic student to step outside.
I know that there are many people with good intentions working in the upper echelons of the Yale administration. Faced with an impossible situation, burdened by institutional inertia, demanding constituencies and conflicting expectations, the administration is trying to make the right decision. But this is not the right decision. This is a myopic solution to a long-term crisis that threatens the most vulnerable among us. It is not in the best interest of university employees. It is not in the best interest of New Haven residents.
And, ultimately, it is not in the best interest of Yale students. When cases spike, when the University is forced to close its doors again and return to fully online operations, I expect that the students will be blamed. But a global pandemic cannot be resolved on an individual level. Its resurgence will not be the fault of a freshman attending an off-campus party or a junior going on a date. It will be the fault of an administration that did not want to take responsibility for itself, an administration that decided to gamble the well-being of its staff and its community on the chance that a campus full of college kids won’t exchange germs.
For now, Yale has avoided making the hard choices. All it asks is that we make them instead.
JORDANNA PACKTOR is a library assistant at Yale Sterling Memorial Library. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.