Visits to friends down the hall! Late-night food runs to eat inside restaurants in Storrs center. Classes at the gym to finally make use of that recreation center fee that everyone has to pay (even if they haven’t been on campus to even look at it this year). Hanging out in friend’s apartments. Carpooling with a group of friends to get away from Storrs for a day. It seems like there may be some salvageable elements of a normal college social life even amidst all the COVID-19 rules and restrictions!
Although we can’t forget: the pandemic isn’t over yet. Yes, cases are decreasing. Yes, there’s a vaccine. Yet there are still new variants of the virus being discovered in the country: According to the Centers for Disease Control, the variants seem to spread more rapidly, and we still don’t know exactly how these variants compare to other strains of the virus in terms of treatment, severity of disease caused, whether or not they are detected by current viral tests and if current vaccines are effective against these new variants. Vaccine rollout has been slower than expected — and the majority of college students, unless they have pre-existing medical conditions or are working in healthcare, aren’t high up on the list to be vaccinated. Even while college students might be at a lower risk to develop severe symptoms of the virus, they can still spread it to the surrounding communities.
So yes: this is another editorial to encourage you to wear your masks (maybe even two), wash your hands, social distance and avoid large gatherings. Don’t take your mask off to sneeze or cough during an in-person class. Keep your mask over your nose. Don’t organize or go to a lecture hall party. Don’t spend time indoors with people outside of your “bubble.”
Yet the Editorial Board also has a challenge for both students and the administration alike: to rethink our expectations of what college is and should be like, especially during a pandemic. College, in some sense, is a product. As students, we “buy” it with certain expectations of what we hope to gain from it. The university brands and markets itself accordingly. As a result of cultural expectations and norms, social culture, along with an education, is a large part of the “product” that universities like UConn market — and as students, it’s something we buy. We don’t make our college decisions exclusively based on academic programs; we visit the campus and try to “see ourselves” there, we visit the dorms and try to figure out what our life might look like as a “UConn student”.
So aside from COVID-19 fatigue and exhaustion with following the rules, it’s no surprise that students on or near campus this semester may want to try to salvage their “college experience”. This — online classes, social distancing, mask-wearing, no sports games to watch in-person, no parties — isn’t the product they thought they were buying when they chose to go to UConn. It’s also not the product that UConn marketed to them — the vibrant social life, the constant happenings, the classic residential experience — so it’s also no surprise that the university is attempting to engineer social opportunities and facilitate more in-person gatherings.
As challenging as it may be, we have to adjust our expectations. All of us. Students must rethink their notions of what socializing has to look like. It’s disappointing to not be able to replicate in reality the picture of college you had in mind — but it’s ethically irresponsible to attempt to do so in a pandemic if that picture includes verifiable public health risks.
The university should adjust its expectations of the value of continued and persistent efforts to market its social culture and provide a certain residential education product, particularly when the majority of students currently don’t live on campus. On campus, they should continue to enforce guidelines that reflect the realities of how the virus spreads — as well as the realities of student likelihood to stretch or break the rules. We hope that the decision-making process for the fall is highly focused on increasing accessibility to higher education by expanding upon what was learned from the educational experiment of the pandemic — and that it has less of an emphasis on catering to a culturally constructed picture of what college should look like.
We’re all exhausted by the pandemic. We all want things to go back to normal. In the meantime, though, even as we are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel, we must adjust our expectations. The pandemic isn’t over yet.