Vincent Snyder, CC ’24, aspired to have opportunities as endless as the New York City skyline, so much so that he would retire his life in the Golden State to attend Columbia.
That was before COVID-19 swept the nation. As a result, his dreams of this hypersocial college fantasy were dashed. However, he believes the sacrifice was necessary.
“I won’t be able to just hang out with friends casually or attend all in-person classes the way I wanted without constantly thinking about social distancing and following the restrictions,” Snyder said. “For now though, I do think that people should do as much as they can to prevent the spread to those in the target groups. Ideally, we’ll all social distance.”
Still, the allure of a normal first-year social life was tempting, he admitted.
As first- and second-year students brace themselves for returning to campus amid the pandemic, many face the same conflict: reconciling their dreams of the quintessential American college experience with the harsh, unrelenting realities of this unusual time. The things first-years typically worry about, like meeting new people and adjusting to college coursework, are now coupled with unprecedented fears of pandemic-restricted college life.
Many of the new restrictions and regulations are outlined in the Columbia Community Health Compact, a set of guidelines rolled out by the University to ensure the well-being of all students, faculty, and staff as they return to campus for the upcoming academic year. Before arriving on campus, all students must sign the compact to demonstrate their commitment to upholding its regulations. Furthermore, those who do not adhere to the new policies will be asked to leave campus, according to the compact.
The University administration’s plan—which includes implementing measures such as daily symptom self-checks; restricted dorm visitation; mandatory face coverings; no in-person group gatherings, including clubs and parties; and social distancing at all times—arose from the analysis of scientific data on the pandemic, according to University Professor Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, an epidemiology and medicine professor at the Mailman School for Public Health and member of Columbia’s COVID-19 task force.
“Our responsibility is to look and see where the evidence exists and try to have all of our decisions be based on evidence,” El-Sadr said.
In order to hear from students, who will bear much of the responsibility of carrying out the administration’s plan, the University Senate’s student affairs committee and Columbia College solicited student input on various aspects of the plan during its creation.
However, there are still many students who disagree with parts of the plan and may be more reluctant to follow it. This reluctance, according to El-Sadr, is perhaps the biggest challenge Columbia will face when it comes to enforcing the guidelines.
At the start of the outbreak in the United States earlier this March, experts pointed to inconsistent messaging around the risk COVID-19 poses to younger populations as a significant factor in lack of social distancing practices. Now, as states have lifted restrictions and individuals have broken social distancing recommendations, the United States has become the country with the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world.
At Columbia, controlling the spread of the coronavirus “requires everyone buying in. It requires a kind of altruism of doing something for others,” El-Sadr said.
Peer pressure is also a factor she believes may influence students’ compliance. El-Sadr expressed that adherence to the guidelines may rely on student “champions” who serve as outspoken proponents for the plan and encourage their peers to do the same.
Incoming first-years have already acknowledged how peer pressure to be social will affect their decisions on campus. Claire Schnatterbeck, CC ’24, said that “if my peers invite me to go out, especially because I’m a freshman, I’d be more willing to socialize with them.”
Decades of research reveal that adolescents are more responsive to peer pressure than other age groups, which can be exacerbated in uncertain conditions such as this pandemic.
Marie Madjo, CC ’24, reasoned, “Peer pressure is very prevalent with teens, so if my friends want to go out and see the city, we might not always follow regulations.”
Among the student population, the University’s health guidelines have been met with varying feedback. Students like Francesca Foglino, SEAS ’24, have not yet read the compact, saying, “I doubt a lot of people read it. I think it’s sort of like the terms and conditions that people just scroll through to accept.”
Others may have already signed the compact but do not remember all of its terms. Alan Luo, SEAS ’23, stated, “I must have [read the compact] because I signed it, but I don’t remember what it says.”
Conversely, Laura Torre, SEAS ’24, is a firm believer in the compact and has hopes to keep herself, her peers, and the surrounding community safe.
“I feel a personal responsibility to social distance in order to protect my peers, as many of them are more vulnerable,” she said.
Last month, in an address to the University, the Morningside Heights Community Coalition asked the administration to consider the potential impacts of reopening campus on the surrounding low-income, Black, and Latinx communities that have been disproportionately affected by the virus. These communities are much less likely than Columbia students to have access to adequate health care.
While COVID-19 indeed threatens immunocompromised students, incidents of asthma and other pulmonary diseases in West Harlem are among the highest in the country, making the surrounding population even more vulnerable to the lethal consequences of the virus.
“At a certain point, we must realize the consequences of our actions—if people are hanging out in large groups, that will have dire effects,” Torre said.
Several students recognized that the administration’s rules could decrease the likelihood of a campus outbreak that might force Columbia to send potential carriers home, which could in turn worsen the spread of the virus in their home region.
However, many students have concerns with how the administration might enforce social distancing, given that the policy will be affecting their experience on campus.
“If the school creates a culture where coronavirus doesn’t spread because of strict enforcement but everyone is really miserable and unhappy all the time, then why did we even invite people back to campus?” Luo added.
Others simply have less faith in their peers’ ability to adhere to the health guidelines. “College students, especially freshmen, want to meet people, make friends, hang out, and party, which hinders them from distancing carefully,” Schnatterbeck said.
And in spite of the potential consequences, some students acknowledge that they might not adhere to Columbia’s distancing policies entirely.
Meghna Gopalan, BC ’24, still plans to socialize with her peers and make the most of her new college life. “I will hang out with my close friends inside without masks,” she said.
But despite the novel challenges that socially-distanced college life presents, students like Madjo are attempting to remain hopeful about their first-year experience. “The prospect of acclimating to this new environment and all these regulations is really stressing me out. It is devastating really as a first-year, but I have to see the good in everything and just be glad that I’m going to be on campus at all.”
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