Yale’s pandemic response: COVID-19 and the college experience
Graduating seniors experienced waves of policies the University imposed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and eventually dissolved throughout their four years at Yale.
Most members of the class of 2023 were first-year students when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020. Three years later — just over a week before the class of 2023’s commencement ceremony — the World Health Organization declared an end to the public health emergency posed by COVID-19.
While away for spring break, Yale students were first told on March 10, 2020, not to return to campus following the break. Instead, classes would be held remotely until April 5. Just four days after this initial notice, the University announced that classes would take place remotely for the remainder of the semester.
“The clearest relevant lesson we have drawn from our best-informed, wisest sources is this: pandemics are defeated by bold measures that blunt the curve of the rate of infection through the dramatic reduction of intense human contact,” President Peter Salovey wrote in an email to the Yale community.
The University initially created a Credit/D/Fail option for students to use for any of their courses that semester. After students voiced concerns and 55 percent of faculty members voted in support of an alternative system in a poll from the University in April, the entire university adopted a universal pass/fail grading system.
That year’s seniors, the graduating class of 2020, lost the opportunity to take part in traditional Commencement celebrations.
“When will we get that last goodbye or hurrah or get to say bye to Yale?” Aadit Vyas ’20 said to the News. Other Yale students wondered when they would say hello to Yale and New Haven again.
The pandemic’s effects spilled into the 2020-2021 academic year, as all instruction remained remote for Yale College. While first years, juniors and seniors were invited back to campus in the fall, sophomores were not allowed back to campus until the spring semester. The incoming first years were set to swap with the sophomore class and take classes remotely, off-campus during the spring semester.
This “residential/remote” model led to many students taking time off from school. Around 20 percent of Yalies decided not to enroll for the fall of 2020, including around 30 percent of the original class of 2023.
Yale’s campus culture saw big changes in the wake of the pandemic. The University adopted strict social distancing measures, which included grab-and-go meals in dining halls, limits to social gatherings of more than 10 people and punishments for infractions.
“No student in the New Haven area, whether enrolled, withdrawn, or on a leave of absence, may host, invite others to, or attend a party with more than 10 people, whether on or off campus,” Salovey wrote to students at the time.
Upon multiple COVID-19 tests when they arrived on campus, students were additionally required to quarantine in a three-phase process for a month.
“The policies are of course not meant to be punitive; they are meant to reduce the risk of viral spread in the community at a time of sharply higher infection rates across the country as well as here in New Haven,” Marvin Chun, who was dean of Yale College at the time, wrote in an email to the News.
Students who spoke to the News expressed disappointment at the lack of any normalcy in their college experience.
“I feel super lucky to go back to campus during such a grim period in our country, but it’s tough to anticipate such an unfamiliarly restricted experience,” Liam Curtis ’23 told the News.
The lack of normalcy continued in the spring semester as the Ivy League Council of Presidents canceled another season of sports in February 2021. For spring athletes, this was the second semester in a row.
Yale students became eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations on April 1, 2021. The process was initially met with setbacks due to difficulties with appointment scheduling and logistical confusion.
“The most difficult part of this process has been trying to navigate all the different platforms for registration and having no luck on any of them,” Carlos Brown Jr. ’23 commented at the time. “When I get close enough to see dates and times, it’s weeks away and I’m kicked out before I can even confirm registration.”
Preparing for the 2021-2022 academic year, the University announced that all Yale students would be required to receive COVID-19 vaccination in order to return to campus for the fall. To ensure access for all students, Nanci Fortgang, chief clinical operations officer for Yale Health, explained that the University would receive a direct allocation of Pfizer vaccines from Connecticut’s Department of Public Health, in addition to a smaller supply of vaccines from the Yale New Haven Health system. This allocation was organized into four large clinics on Yale’s campus and was open to all community members.
With the vaccination plan in place, the fall semester of 2021 then saw all undergraduates return to campus, with a return to in-person instruction.
“After more than a year of taking classes online, to physically be in a room with other students and to see people filling the streets, walking to class and interacting felt surreal,” Victoria Vera ’23 told the News. “Even with everyone wearing masks, it almost feels like Yale was approaching normal again.”
At the beginning of the term, students were required to test for COVID-19 weekly. Those who tested positive were required to move out of their dorms and into isolation housing at either McClellan Hall or Arnold Hall.
The Omicron variant, which emerged in late 2021, hit campus particularly hard, prompting an increase in isolation housing move-ins and sudden policy changes.
Grappling with a spike in cases, the University announced on Dec. 18 that all remaining finals for the semester would be moved online and students would be allowed to leave campus early as a result. That day, Yale’s COVID-19 dashboard showed the largest number of COVID-19 cases the University had reported in a single day. The University’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 110 new cases between Dec. 10 and Dec. 16.
In response to Omicron, the University delayed the start of the spring semester by one week. To compensate for the lost instruction, Yale’s spring recess was cut to one week instead of two.
After the delayed start, some aspects of University life remained virtual for the spring of 2022 including Yale’s sorority rush as the University continued to impose strict audience policies for the performing arts.
When Yalies returned to campus for the spring 2022 semester, the College announced plans to resume in-person dining and classes. Some immunocompromised students told the News they were fearful for their safety and felt they were being left behind in Yale’s policy-making processes.
In February 2022, students from Yale Hybridize Now — alongside almost 500 signatories — called on the University to “hybridize” and offer the option for students and professors to attend all classes either in-person or online, given the increasing number of positive COVID-19 tests.
When students returned to campus the next semester — fall 2022 — the policies and changes implemented due to the pandemic began to fade. The university removed its mandatory testing policies and isolation housing became a thing of the past.
With pop-up booster vans available around campus and mask-mandates in classrooms lifted in September, the campus entered a new phase of the pandemic, one that, after three years, more closely resembled the pre-pandemic experience.
In October 2022, three weeks after the mask mandate lifted, two Student Accessibility Services peer liaisons told the News that the loosened mask mandate threatened the safety of immunocompromised, disabled and otherwise high-risk students and faculty — especially when some students feel pressured to attend classes when sick with non-COVID conditions.
“With the university lifting its guidelines and making it up to the individual, they’re making an already not accessible place less accessible,” Karen Wang ’24, one of the peer liaisons, told the News at the time. “I find it really disturbing that people who don’t mask say that they care for their community, but your actions show you’re working within an ableist framework.”
The first Yale undergraduate COVID-19 case was reported on Aug. 27, 2020.