On July 20, Gettysburg College announced its return to residential learning with the ambitious slogan, “Better Together.”
Last week, after a spike in cases, the college administration decided to send students packing.
In that span, I moved onto campus, got tested for COVID-19 three times, was placed in quarantine for 10 non-consecutive days, and then got sent home with less than 24 hours’ notice, and without being tested.
As a student diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder during a pandemic, it was a whirlwind of fun coupled with uncertainty and disappointment. Like lots of students, I sacrificed many hobbies, including my off-campus job, to reduce the risk of exposure when I returned to campus. Though there was still plenty of risk, I came to campus prepared for a long, fruitful semester alongside my dedicated peers in an incredible faculty.
But the atmosphere on campus had dramatically shifted by Sept. 1.
That’s when I muted my microphone and shut off my camera during a Zoom class to look at the “Fall Return” email that graced my screen around 7:30 p.m. The email announced an immediate all-student lockdown. At the completion of surveillance testing for an outbreak traced back to specific social events, the college had identified 60+ cases in a matter of days, and reported to us that in-person classes were to switch to remote, and we were to be quarantined until “at least the end of the week.”
The quarantine required us to remain in our living spaces, only leaving to use the restroom and pick up food from the dining hall. This announcement left some students without meal plans with unstable access to food, no access to laundry machines if there were none in their residence, and more mundane fears, like whether their trash would pile too high.
In the two-and-a-half hours before a 10 p.m. lockdown, I finished the remainder of my online class. Then, as my roommates made a trip to the grocery store, where they stocked up on enough food to fill our pantry and refrigerator, I walked down the street with three laundry bags over my shoulders. Because I required swipe-in access to the laundry room, I would not have access to laundry machines after our access to campus buildings was revoked at 10 p.m.
Campus soon became flooded with accusations, protests, and a frustration that only motivated students to break the rules and aggressively tattle on their peers in a vicious cycle.
Then, last Friday, the situation changed.
We were given notice of the “de-densification of campus” that would require many residential students to evacuate all of their belongings from campus and switch to remote learning. Move-out dates were assigned shortly after; our departure was categorized by home-state. Pennsylvania residents, like myself, had less than 24 hours to pack up belongings.
I struggled to pack up a semester’s worth of belongings within the allotted “outside time” that the college provided to appease students’ need for fresh air. (During this time, students emerging from quarantine were given time to leave our houses, socially distanced, and eat or hang out on outdoor campus spaces. The periods were usually around two hours.)
The next day, I drove home to my family.
I view remote learning as a safe and effective option for students with autoimmune disorders, other health complications, or students who are affected by COVID-19. The decision to send students home, though abrupt, is not what motivated me to write about my experience on a public platform. I take issue, instead, with all students not receiving testing immediately before they left campus. The general study body were not given what I think was appropriate time to self-quarantine and monitor for possible symptoms before returning to their families, though the college has said that students who tested positive or were close contacts remained on campus to finish their time in isolation or quarantine.
Instead, students packed up their cars, and risked taking the virus into their households.
After rigorous testing for four weeks, a four-day campus-wide quarantine, and a system of testing that I believe to be among the best in the country, it was a bizarre decision of the college to reverse course. The failure to extend the quarantine to the widely accepted two-week period—or impose testing on students in waves before they returned home—is puzzling. It seems that the danger of having a campus outbreak outweighed the calamity that could ensue if students were to infect their families at home.
The de-densification plan did not include all students. For the remainder of the semester, freshmen will continue living on Gettysburg’s campus. Some students, including tour guides, intramural staff, and resident assistants, will also remain on campus after being asked to stay to enhance first-year students’ experience. Following the cleaning of spaces no longer occupied by upperclassmen, some students will move their residence in order to spread out across campus. My roommates, also seniors, are remaining on campus to continue their roles as college staff.
Gettysburg has done a lot right here. Students who remain on campus are currently being tested for COVID-19, and are again under quarantine until their results are provided. Students who test positive are subject to further isolation. And as of Wednesday, Gettysburg was moving to reimburse students who weren’t remaining on campus with an 80 percent refund for room and board, and a 10 percent refund for tuition.
Gettysburg deserves some praise for its actions. The administration’s efforts, including the highly restrictive all-student quarantine, attempted—albeit in vain—to eradicate all traces of COVID-19 from campus for the wellbeing of its students. I commend the amount of testing and contact tracing that was done, as well as the unconditional support and sympathy of the faculty that made the start of my senior year less intimidating. What occurred at the end of my short time on campus this semester does not represent the overall character or the integrity of the institution that I have come to love.
However, defying advice from medical experts and government officials to send potentially exposed students back into the community without precaution is a decision I can only hope—for reasons personal and professional—doesn’t end in disaster.
In an emailed statement, Jamie Yates, executive director of communications and marketing at Gettysburg College, told The Daily Beast, “We acted in the best interest of the wellbeing of our entire community: students, faculty, staff, and the greater-Gettysburg borough. We had to do what was responsible when we saw a rise in cases on campus. Being in-residence, together, matters enormously, but the health and safety of the community matters more.”