Unsafe in the classroom: pandemic remains a threat for Yale’s immunocompromised students
As Yale College plans to resume in-person dining Monday and in-person classes next week, some immunocompromised students fear for their safety and feel they are being left behind in Yale’s policy making decisions.
Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
When Abigael Parrish ’25 arrived at Yale in the fall of 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she hoped those around her would act to keep her safe.
Diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when she was seven years old, Parrish had spent years navigating the world with a pre-existing medical condition. When Parrish arrived at Yale in the fall of 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she hoped that those around her would do their part to keep her safe. Expecting the sense of community she had been promised as an admitted student, she recalled her surprise when she sat in seminars where professors neglected to wear masks and classmates skipped testing. Parrish said she often was a lone voice defending the University’s cautious approach to the pandemic against the anger and impatience of her friends, and was often met with eye rolls if she asked classmates near her to wear their mask properly. She became terrified of learning at Yale, she said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to throw the spring semester into flux, students living with pre-existing medical conditions face an additional set of challenges unfamiliar to many Yalies.
In an email sent to the student body on Jan. 11, Yale College Dean Marvin Chun assured students that if they contract COVID-19, they will “probably have a mild case,” but reminded students that “does not mean we can disregard the threat of COVID-19,” adding to keep in mind undergraduates with other medical conditions and immunodeficiencies.
“Many students only consider how their own lives are impacted, and fail to consider those of us whose survival depends on them,” Parrish said. “And when those voices outnumber ours, the University cannot always be trusted to make decisions that protect us.”
When Parrish returned to campus on Jan. 23 after winter recess, she was exhausted. For her, time away from campus was filled with doctor’s appointments and hospital visits, as opposed to the rest and relaxation her peers experienced. Moreover, she told the News, she was exhausted at the prospect of another semester in which she had to be an advocate for herself and fellow at-risk students every day.
At a Jan. 20 COVID-19 town hall sponsored by the Yale College Council, Chun had suggested that concerned immunocompromised students consider taking a gap semester.
“When I heard Dean Chun say that at-risk students should take a gap semester, I was horrified and so, so angry,” Parrish told the News.
She believed the statement to be “ableist” and explained that with his words, he erased any confidence that she had in the University’s desire to keep her and other immunocompromised students safe.
In a subsequent interview with the News, Chun explained that during the town hall, he did not mean to suggest that a leave of absence was the only option immunocompromised students could take. Students with weakened immune systems who wish to stay enrolled can seek medical accommodation with the office of Student Accessibility Services, he said.
“My intent during the town hall was to point out the option available to all students who wanted to spend time away from Yale during the pandemic for any reason and without penalty,” Chun said.
Still, the News spoke to three immunocompromised students, including Parish, who still feel that the University and their fellow students have disregarded them as the spring semester begins.
Ahead of students’ return to campus, the administration sent a flurry of emails informing the student body of updated COVID-19 safety measures. New guidance included two weeks of remote learning and facilities restrictions, arrival testing requirements and updated masking guidelines. For many at-risk students, the restrictions come as a welcome relief to the anxiety surrounding the upcoming semester.
priya v. ’23, an at-risk transfer student, told the News that they are happy the restrictions exist at Yale even as other schools reopen without significant changes to student life. Yale’s COVID-19 policies are among the strictest in the Ivy League. Most other schools, including Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and Brown, have all started their semesters in person as planned, while Columbia, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania have begun with hybrid classes.
“It definitely came as a relief to me,” priya said, “but I think they need to be stricter.”
priya expressed concern about rising case counts due to the more transmissible Omicron variant and thought it would be “ridiculous” for campus to continue operating under the same restrictions it did in the fall semester. As cases rise due to the new variant and breakthrough cases appear to become more common, priya said, they felt “back in a riskier position” even after receiving the vaccine.
Between 19 and 50 percent of non-elderly Americans have some type of pre-existing medical condition and are at risk for the most serious cases of COVID-19. Yale students with respiratory conditions are especially afraid of COVID-19’s effects on their health. Worried that catching COVID-19 could lead to severe pulmonary complications from their already-impaired respiratory systems, many take extra precautions and safety measures to ensure their well-being.
“I still regularly disinfect surfaces, double-mask and wear masks in the dorms and in my home,” Diego Bolanos ’25 said.
Bolanos has had asthma his entire life and told the News he remembers feeling “different” as a child because of his medical condition. For him, COVID-19 has resurfaced some of those feelings of alienation, especially when he expresses concern about his health.
Bolanos noted that he feels “really anxious” whenever he comes into contact with anyone who has contracted the virus. He shared his anger for people who hide their COVID-19 symptoms and dismissively claim they are fine.
“They may be fine, but I really don’t know what will happen if I get it and I’m terrified,” Bolanos said.
Yale College Provost for Health Affairs and Academic Integrity Stephanie Spangler told the News that during the YCC’s COVID-19 Town Hall, University administrators sought to reaffirm Yale’s commitment to the health and safety of all students, including those with pre-existing medical conditions. Spangler separately pointed out the importance of being fully vaccinated and getting boosted as a way of preserving campus safety.
“Although breakthrough infections do and will occur, and maybe more frequently with the highly infectious Omicron variant, vaccination that includes boosters provides substantially enhanced protection against serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19,” Spangler told the News.
Ilan Dubler-Furman ’25, who has Crohn’s disease, was among the first to get the booster vaccine when it was made available at Yale in October of last year. However, Dubler-Furman tested positive for the virus upon his return to Yale in January.
Aside from experiencing flu-like symptoms, he is “thankfully, fine” and attributes mildness of his symptoms to the booster shot. He hopes more students will get the vaccine to keep themselves and others on campus safe.
But even with COVID-19 safety rules, as well as mask and vaccine mandates, some still worry about the pandemic’s effect on their long-term health and wellbeing. Long-COVID is a poorly understood condition that affects 15 to 80 percent of all COVID-19 patients and presents itself uniquely in individuals depending on their immune system. While most people who contract COVID-19 will recover in a matter of weeks, those afflicted with long-COVID may continue to experience symptoms for months and even years after their diagnosis.
As most students look to the future with a return to in-person classes and relaxed restrictions, students like priya worry that a rushed return to normalcy could put them and others like them in danger. Instead, they favor a semester-long remote learning option for the immunocompromised because of the threat of infection and long-COVID.
“At-risk students deserve to feel safe in a classroom, and I do not feel safe,” priya said.
Yale College is scheduled to begin in-person instruction on Feb. 7.
Correction, Jan. 31: This article has been updated to reflect the accurate proportion of Americans living with a pre-existing medical condition.
Correction, Jan. 31: A previous version of this article misspelled Parrish’s first name. It has been updated.
Correction, Feb. 5: A previous version of this article used an incorrect name for priya v. The article has been updated.