As Kenyon welcomes back roughly half of its student body, it is unlikely that any students are under the illusion that this semester will resemble their usual college experience. In response to the threat of COVID-19, the Kenyon administration has instituted a new set of rules and precautions to minimize the spread of the virus, including but not limited to: mandatory mask-wearing, frequent testing, minimal in-person classes, strict protocols for student organizations, social distancing and major limits on social gatherings. That students follow these guidelines is not only crucial for the safety of the Kenyon and Gambier community, but is also a signal of respect and solidarity with the community members, workers and staff who are putting their lives at risk to make campus life possible for Kenyon students.
All of these measures are simple to perform as individuals, but the difficulty lies in actually enforcing them. In a Student Council meeting earlier this year, Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 insisted that it is not Campus Safety’s duty to punish students who do not follow protocol; since then, many people have expressed frustration with the administration’s lack of a disciplinary plan.
But frankly, the administration is correct in not resorting to punitive measures to enforce a commitment to health and safety. Punishment is not going to prevent students from breaking rules, especially given that most of campus life occurs out of sight from Campus Safety. At best, punity is ineffective, at worst harsh punishment could result in a troubling culture of policing. Instead, we need to focus on a more comprehensive and active approach to ensure that all students follow guidelines: The student body must collectively create a culture of safety.
Many students are returning to campus due to a genuine need for a safe and stable place to live, while others are returning with the privilege of having a secure and accessible home to return to if the administration deems campus unsafe. So, the next time you are thinking about going out, consider how your actions could potentially jeopardize the security and stability that campus offers.
Moreover, students need to reflect on their place in the Gambier community. We are temporary residents in a community where our presence is a potential danger for its full-time residents. Many students come from wealthy backgrounds who have comprehensive healthcare and a support system to take care of them if they contract the virus. That is not the case for many residents of Gambier and the surrounding Knox County. Getting coronavirus might not seem like a big deal to you, but it can be entirely destabilizing for others.
Everyone is a bit of a follower at heart. We respond to social cues and norms, cling to trends, reject taboos and easily fall into a collective mentality. Students can take advantage of this in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by consistently setting an example of caution by wearing masks, not attending large gatherings and social distancing as much as possible. At the same time, we should keep in mind that we also have the agency to resist harmful group behavior. It’s hard to be the one acting contrary to those around you, but it is so much cooler to be thoughtful and caring towards the community than to go to a party because all of your friends are going.
With that being said, while the onus of prevention and caution lays primarily on the students, the administration is also responsible for the safety of the community. Whether it was in good faith or a means to profit, the administration made the decision to bring students back to campus and they should be held accountable for that. It is thus their job to provide all of the necessary resources, like masks and cleaning material, online educational tools and spaces to accommodate the need for social distancing. This being the case, as long as the administration and student body both do their part in preventing the spread of the virus, penal measures should never need to be considered.
At the same time, I know how hard it is to face the reality that college is going to look vastly different than it did eight months ago. I was devastated to find out that I would not be returning to campus in the fall. After eight months of fairly consistent isolation, I am starved for social contact. I long for that nervous frenzy that comes with moving back onto campus, the excitement of a whole new year and new people and classes and parties, for friends bursting through the door and toppling onto my bed, for rooms packed with people and the anxiety of moving through them with endless small talk and banter. This desire points to, not just my own, but all of our physical and emotional need for human contact. But the potential costs from this social deprivation are not enough to justify the inevitable threats to students, staff and community members’ health. So as I sit on my bed, filled with self-pity, I know that I — and every other college student— need to let go of our perceived entitlement to the traditional liberal arts college experience. There is far too much at stake not to.
Since the reopening of colleges across the country, students have shown a poor track record when following COVID-19 guidelines. Only a few weeks into the semester, many universities have experienced major outbreaks. If this is any indication of how campus life will unfold at Kenyon, the prospect looks grim. But I know we can do better. If COVID-19 teaches us anything, it’s our capacity to take care of each other in the midst of instability. Having a supportive community, surrounded by peers and devoted staff, is a rare and special privilege in a time like this. Please, do not ruin that for other people.