COVID restrictions have negatively impacted our school culture and mental health – The Williams Record

As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Williams experience has been fundamentally altered by the social restrictions that the government is imposing on our community. For many students, the strong community bond that is idealized in admissions materials and alumni anecdotes was one of the main reasons we were drawn to Williams. However, the personal and intimate Williams pre-COVID culture has been replaced by a widespread sense of isolation under the public health regime. The eradication of COVID has displaced education and the advancement of community as the primary goal of our institution.

As I listened to Williams alumni share their college experiences during my winter study course, I became incredibly aware of how Williams’ public health actions have isolated us from one another and weakened the bonds that used to define the Williams culture. I understood that these connections are formed through quick interactions before class begins, informal conversations in Sawyer, and friendly banter in the hallways of the dorm. However, we are deprived of those intimate personal connections essential to forming a community – forced to retreat behind our face coverings and huddle in the isolation of our spaces.

The most adverse change in the Williams community is how fear has replaced trust as the dominant sentiment on campus. When students deviate from overly restrictive health guidelines, we enter an environment of secrecy. Colleagues are perceived as potential spies and faculty and staff are portrayed as COVID cops. Student leaders such as Junior Advisors (JAs) and team captains have had to shoulder the burden of enforcing mask and COVID rules, creating distrust in the campus communities where they serve. The COVID eradication policy is making us turn against each other.

Forcing young people into endless social isolation has drastic consequences. Our country is now facing a widespread adolescent mental health crisis. College administrators across the country are struggling to respond to the rapidly increasing demand for mental health services among students as a result of their COVID policies. Despite this, the Williams administration refuses to make significant policy changes despite the direct link between their social limitations and their students’ mental health problems. Our fight comes at a necessary price in the fight against COVID.

But when two weeks become three months that become three years, how can we hold out hope for a brighter future that not even a vaccine can provide? If administrators, contrary to the Centers for Disease Control’s updated quarantine guidelines, are imposing antigen testing requirements and recommending scientifically unsupported outdoor masking, how can we maintain confidence in Williams’ public health policy? If students were expected to eat 42 meals alone in the first two weeks of winter study due to a ban on unmasked indoor interactions, how are we supposed to happily comply, in the spirit of “protecting the community”?

Well, I don’t play by the rules, and neither should you. My heart sinks for those who stick to the rules to follow them — like the students who asked Jim Reische if they need to wear a mask in the shower — rather than whether they think the rules make sense. We have been told over and over to sacrifice for the greater good, but what are we sacrificing for? The unvaccinated, not protecting themselves?

Proponents of permanent COVID restrictions argue that we must make permanent changes in our lives to protect the vulnerable, such as the elderly or the immunocompromised. However, they ignore how pharmaceutical innovations in vaccines and antiviral treatments like paxlavoid and molnupiravir drastically reduce the risk of COVID. As with the flu, it is impossible to eliminate all risks from COVID, but we cannot ignore the unacceptable social harm, especially to children and young people, caused by restrictive COVID guidelines.

There will be no end to COVID; It is endemic and will accompany us for the rest of our lives. However, we cannot accept that the public health tyranny that governs every aspect of our lives at Williams will never end. Williams’ micromanagement of college student social behavior is incredibly frustrating because not all students in dormitories can have unmasked social interactions other than their own private common room and bathroom. While our fully vaccinated community must hide under repressive restrictions, any person in Berkshire County, regardless of vaccination status, can walk into Walmart unmasked, go to a crowded bar, or throw a big house party. If our state and local government doesn’t ban these activities, why does Williams feel it necessary to transform into a public health enforcement agency? With few looking after our interests, we as students must take steps to protect the essence of Williams, the strength of his community, before it eludes us.

To restore the culture of the pre-COVID era, Williams must abandon its prevailing focus on eradicating COVID and refocus its goals on providing rigorous education and fostering a unified community. Trusting vaccinated individuals to assess their own risks and make responsible decisions is paramount to strengthening our community bonds and emerging from the isolation and internal tensions that define our current experience. Rather than dictating the social behaviors of his fully vaccinated student body, Williams must focus on the well-being of his students, something the college has neglected in its response to the pandemic.

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