Sophomores, you must be excited.
You’ve been away from New Haven for a semester and a half. You’ve been missing your friends. And you’ve probably spent way too much time with your parents in the process. You are now back on campus, and Yale is once again your home. This is exciting stuff!
But I’m here to tell you to curb your enthusiasm; not all that glitters is gold. I should know. I lived on campus for the fall semester, and I won’t be back in the spring. Several new aspects of a pandemic-era Yale made on-campus life significantly different — even relative to my tempered expectations.
First, Yale felt like a surveillance state. The most egregious overreach occurred when I was hanging out in a friend’s suite on a Saturday night. With eight people in a five-resident suite, we were in accordance with the regulations governing the size of gatherings. Yale policy requires a one-to-one ratio of suite members and guests — with a suite of five people, five guests are allowed. Suddenly, two public health coordinators, or PHCs, entered the suite and began interrogating us. They were uninvited. They did not knock or provide any kind of forewarning. And they were using cameras to record our actions and our responses to their questions.
I asked Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd whether such actions were permitted. She stated that “the general practice when the PHCs are sent out to respond to an emergency or unsafe gathering is for them to knock on the suite door and wait for a response.” What occurred to me, then, may not be common. But I was unable to gain clarification as to what might happen if students did not respond to the knock on their door, or whether the PHCs have limitations on their power in this regard.
Yale’s interest in effective enforcement of COVID-19 regulations is completely understandable. And such a search is technically legal by the terms of our on-campus housing agreement. But Yale should not resort to warrantless searches — doing so is deeply disturbing from a privacy standpoint, and made Yale feel like a dystopian Big Brother.
Other little things add up, too. Signs are posted everywhere telling us to swipe into buildings individually — that way, your every movement can be tracked. In the spring, students must register any indoor gathering with over seven people. And it’s not just the institution of Yale that fosters this atmosphere — other students will report you for perceived violations of the community compact.
Then there are the quarantines. Besides the initial 14-day quarantine, there will be restrictions that feel capricious. For example, during the last week of the semester, all on-campus students were barred from leaving campus altogether out of an abundance of caution. And in early November, all students in Saybrook, Davenport and Grace Hopper colleges were quarantined for seven days in response to a cluster of cases — regardless of whether individuals in those colleges came into close contact with the cluster. According to Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun, this was done out of concern for “students who may not previously have been identified as close contacts, and who have therefore not been in quarantine.” Such a policy is unfair. A student that abides by the community compact — and can be sure that they did not come into close contact with anyone that tests positive — should not have to quarantine.
Close-contact quarantines are the most difficult of all. These quarantines last for 14 days, and they are strict: you are confined to your bedroom, and food is delivered to your door. All it takes is one simple twist of fate for you to be forced to spend two weeks in complete physical solitude. This makes the cost of mistakes very high. My friend was quarantined after a close contact received a false positive — they are exceedingly rare, but they do happen. It took seven days for the false positive to be verified and for the friend to be released from his room.
The spring quarantine policies promise to be even more cumbersome. Students are quarantined to their residential colleges until Feb. 15. Given that move in starts on Jan. 28, this means that the arrival quarantine will be as long as 18 days!
Also puzzling is Yale’s mandate that in-residence students stay on campus through March 1. This mandate is as arbitrary as it is unenforceable. Boyd cited “bring[ing] Yale College into compliance with state directives” in her Jan. 25 message explaining this policy. But, on the Connecticut state travel website, I was unable to find any directives to suggest that anything beyond a 10-day quarantine was necessary.
When I asked Boyd for further comment, she clarified that the “Yale College arrival quarantine protocols were developed by Yale’s public health advisory team in conversation with Connecticut public health officials. As with our travel guidelines, our requirements meet and exceed the State’s.” Yale, then, is actually going beyond state guidelines with its arrival policies. Especially in light of the CDC’s adjusted recommendations — which deem a seven-day quarantine with a negative test to be an acceptable alternative to a 14-day quarantine — such policies are excessive.
Beyond the surveillance and the quarantines, it is clear that Yale was — and will be — extremely aggressive in broadly curbing student activities if clusters of cases emerge. Yale’s response to the October men’s hockey outbreak included shutting down intramurals, the tennis center and the art museums. How the hockey outbreak was connected to those things, I am not entirely sure.
It’s important to note that life at Yale was not all bad. The single biggest redeeming factor of the semester was spending time with friends — especially if it was outdoors. Activities like tossing a football, running to East Rock and playing golf at the Yale Golf Course definitely helped offset the time spent on Zoom.
With all of this in mind, sophomores, what can you do? Is it worth it to stay on campus?
Ultimately, the decision to live on campus is personal and depends on a myriad of factors. For me, life at Yale just wasn’t close enough to what I thought it would be. That’s why I’m spending the spring semester working as a ski lift operator in Utah. I’ll be trading the muggy, recirculated breath in my mask for the fresh mountain air of the Rockies.
But I do believe that the on-campus experience can be meaningful, as long as you have the right attitude and your expectations are appropriately set. So at least until the COVID-19 crisis is over, it’s like Bob Dylan said: “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”
JACK BARKER is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.