On March 10, 2020, Middlebury College informed students of an early start to spring break and a pivot to virtual learning, optimistically suggesting these disruptions might end in April. Students who were here in spring 2020 need no reminders of that virtual semester, or of the following heavily-restricted fall semester and online J-Term. While the execution of these semesters left plenty to be desired, the various restrictions were at least defensible, and the quickly-changing circumstances forced the college into difficult decisions.
Now, however, everything is different. Vaccines have given us an impressive layer of defense against the virus. Many students and community members have contracted, and recovered from, Covid-19. We’ve learned a great deal about the virus and how to treat those who suffer from serious illness. We’ve also learned that the Omicron variant is a milder strain, albeit more transmissible.
Yet suddenly, we find ourselves with many of the same rules, restrictions, and requirements that we suffered through in 2020. “Informal” gatherings are limited to six people, and dining halls remain to-go only at least until next week.
Faced with these detriments to the in-person experience Middlebury claims to value so highly, one has to wonder: What exactly is the justification for these policies? It seems that the four possible rationales are to protect the students themselves from contracting Covid-19, to protect faculty and staff from contracting it, to preserve hospital capacity, and the poorly-defined desire to protect the most vulnerable in our community.
The first is clearly misguided. Students, a population of almost exclusively 18- to 24-year-olds who are nearly all fully vaccinated, are at absurdly low risk of serious illness from Covid-19. According to this set of CDC data, young people — broadly defined as 16- to 29-year-olds, account for just 0.8% of US Covid-19 deaths (around 6,000 total) despite making up a much larger percentage of all cases. Nearly all such deaths were among unvaccinated people. For the overwhelming majority of young, vaccinated people, Covid-19 is a routine cold or flu. We’ve never previously decided that protecting students from endemic diseases is worth moving classes online, emptying dining halls, and gutting Middlebury of so much that makes up college life. There is no reason to do so now.
The second explanation — to protect faculty and staff — carried more weight last fall and spring. Then, vaccines were not available, and many faculty and staff members were indeed at higher risk of serious illness than any student. Many also had concerns for their children or other family members, despite convincing evidence that children are quite resilient to the virus. But now, each of these populations (except children under five, who were always at low risk) is eligible for the vaccine and many are eligible for boosters. It should also be stressed that teaching in a classroom can be made almost entirely risk-free if a professor distances themselves from the students and communicates that preference to students. Any activity carries some small risk of encountering Covid-19 — teaching in a fully-vaccinated classroom arguably poses less risk than plenty of others.
The third argument for the current protocols — to preserve hospital capacity — doesn’t hold up against the previous two paragraphs. Again, vaccinated students and children comprise a miniscule proportion of those hospitalized for Covid-19. While Vermont hospital capacity is indeed stretched thin, pinning Covid-19 as the direct cause is tenuous. Recent data from the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation show hospitalizations for or with Covid-19 making up 15% of total hospitalizations. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine’s explanation for the surge is that people who have delayed care since the pandemic began are now finding themselves in the hospital at higher rates, combined with staffing challenges that have diminished hospital capacity. Protecting our low-risk population from Covid-19, then, seems unlikely to make much difference to Vermont’s hospital bed supply.
With all of the above arguments falling short, it’s the fourth assertion that has been adopted most recently by the college. “Protecting the most vulnerable” has become the dominant buzzword in the college’s description of new rules. But who are these most vulnerable? And to what extent do campus restrictions protect them? Middlebury is not a perfect bubble, but it’s about as close as you can reasonably get to one in the United States. The elderly already have little contact with the campus, and those who work on campus can largely manage their exposure to match their own risk tolerance. The young were never at high risk and are even safer with vaccines. The immunocompromised, quite frankly, have always lived with the difficult reality that they are at higher risk of serious illness from all kinds of afflictions. That’s a challenging situation, not to be taken lightly, but at some point the people in that position must find a way to navigate living with yet another endemic disease, balancing safety and fulfillment. In the long run, we can no more insulate them from Covid-19 than we can from the flu or other respiratory illnesses.
The bottom line is this: As an on-campus student, your chance of getting Covid-19 by May is high. But you should assume your chance of getting Covid-19 over the next five years to be 100%. As we absorb the inevitability of living with the virus, we must also strip away the fear that has accompanied positive tests, the judgment that has infiltrated every social interaction, and the restrictions that are past the point of doing more harm than good. The threat of serious illness, however unlikely, is never going away. We must decide how we live with it.
To be clear: I am not admonishing anyone who judges their personal risk to be high enough to justify different behavior. If you feel that distancing, masking, and other precautions are the right choice for you, that is by all means your prerogative. But it is equally my choice to act according to the risk I perceive for myself.
It’s been two long and unhappy years. Thankfully, we are finally reaching the turning point between pandemic and endemic. But that shift only matters when we change our behavior to reflect it.
Griffin Shapiro is a member of the Class of 2022.