When Matthew Bray ‘24 saw yet another email from Dean Marvin Chun reporting moderate to low coronavirus risk on campus, he breathed a sigh of relief. Before returning to campus in late August, students and faculty alike thought a high caseload would be inevitable, but a strict residential college quarantine upon arrival seems to have been Yale’s winning strategy.
As of September 24, only one Yalie had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past seven days—one of only 14 undergraduate student cases since move-ins began in late August. Yale’s surprisingly low caseload has provided a sense of safety for students like Bray.
After spending the bulk of quarantine in his hometown, Birmingham, AL, Bray felt that New Haven was the safest place to weather the coronavirus storm. As a state currently on a restricted travel list for Connecticut, Alabama’s positive cases have continued to climb as a result of lax social-distancing restrictions, while Connecticut has seen a decline due to stringent precautions taken as early as March. Bray’s home town of Birmingham sits in two counties that have seen numbers drastically higher than those of New Haven.
Jefferson County, where a majority of Birmingham is, has seen more than 1,700 cases in the past 14 days, whereas New Haven has less than 100 cases over the same time period.
“New Haven is much safer for me [than Birmingham],” Bray said without hesitation in an interview with The Politic. “Especially with bi-weekly testing, I feel so much safer here.”
Judah Millen ‘24 isn’t as optimistic; Millen has taken a more pragmatic view of the COVID dashboard numbers that flash across his screen each morning.
“I think people are relaxing because things are going so well,” Millen said. “I’m a little optimistic that if someone brought COVID in, people would increase their awareness, but there’s potential for a massive outbreak even if people are following the restrictions.”
The Community Compact, signed by every New Haven-residing Yalie this semester, outlines the rules for social distancing and gatherings on campus. It requires gatherings be kept to 10 or fewer individuals, all of whom must remain six feet apart at all times. It also mandates that masks must be worn in gatherings outside of students’ “family unit,” a family unit being a student’s assigned group with which they do not have to social distance, usually their suitemates. With more specific rules in regards to indoor and outdoor gatherings and increased distance when consuming meals—including that students “maintain six feet when feasible” and observe rules posted within dining halls—the contract and supplemental sources posted around campus seem to outline any possible scenarios and what to do with relative clarity.
However, the Compact’s punishment clauses have concerned many students. Social distancing infractions are dealt with via a three-strike policy. In the event that a student is anonymously reported, they will have a conversation with their Public Health Coordinator. As is stated in the Community Compact Enforcement, the Public Health Coordinator will “reach out to the student to counsel them on the importance of these health and safety measures and, as appropriate, will issue the student a warning or refer the student to the CRC.”
Only after being referred to the Compact Review Committee (CRC) could any punishment incur.
Bray expressed concern over the leniency of the policy enforcement, worrying that by the time a student has broken guidelines severely enough to be reported three times, they would already have put too many lives in danger. He expressed a want for reports to be “handled in a stricter manner to encourage compliance.”
This apprehension seems to be shared and the leniency in Compact enforcement is even deterring students from reporting. “I think it’s dangerous to assume that no one is going to get hurt in the time it takes for someone to get in trouble on three separate occasions,” Thomas Sottosanti ‘24 said in an interview with The Politic.
Due to the Compact’s leniency, many students have opted to not report social-distancing violations. “There’s no actual apparatus by which people would be punished,” Millen said. “Shattering a friendship so that the PHC can have a conversation with kids who obviously don’t care just doesn’t seem worth it.”
Millen discussed how reporting people breaking Compact rules is something that depends on a myriad of factors. “It definitely depends on whether or not I know the people. Reporting someone and potentially subjecting them to punishment is not exactly conducive to forging an intimate relationship,” Millen said. “So, I would be apprehensive, especially at the beginning of college while I’m still trying to make friends, to completely shatter my relationship with someone.”
According to the Community Compact the CRC only considers “repeated, serious or flagrant failures to meet the Community Compact commitments.”
Millen did clarify the limits of his reporting apprehension. “Like a 60-person party, I would report regardless,” Millen said. “But if it’s like 12 people, I probably wouldn’t report that.”
Bray, however, takes a stronger stance on reporting. He described the importance of safe on-campus housing to thousands of Yalies as the primary reason behind his strict reporting standard. “I think that the need for some students to remain on campus for housing due to home situations, unfair access to housing, or personal reasoning outweighs the fun a few students might have from partying outside the guidelines set by Yale,” Bray said.
Like most students concerned about virus spread due to lax social-distancing precautions, Bray is willing to blow the whistle, even if it means social ostracism.
Bray realizes that a call to his PHC might put a damper on the few months of in-person Yale he has left, but he knows what he’s risking. When I asked him if he had any fear of the consequences of reporting someone he knew, Bray was quick to respond.
“It might attach a stigma to someone for being a snitch or a sellout, but personally the type of people who would be mad at me for reporting something like that aren’t necessarily the type of people I want to hang out with,” Bray said. “I think being cognizant of the greater risks of your actions is very important.”
Although Bray is more than willing to report what he sees as dangerous interactions, he does recognize the social implications of a student reporting system. He discussed how students reporting other students could “foster negative interactions and hostility.” He did recognize, though, that Yale “might not have the resources to monitor every student in the way that the student body as a whole is constantly interacting with each other.”
Many other colleges across the nation have taken to sending students home for breaking COVID restrictions, taking much harsher punishment routes to enforcing social-distancing. This is something that both Bray and Millen believe is necessary, though the extent to which they believe in increasing these punishments varies.
Millen doesn’t know what an ideal accountability system should look like. “I think if things start spreading and awareness increases and people continue to violate policies, then maybe I would say Yale should make an example of someone to say that this is something that won’t be tolerated,” Millen said. He made reference to Northeastern, who sent home 11 students for violations of their public health protocols with no refunds to their tuition.
Several colleges have taken this route, with NYU suspending more than 20 students after less than a week of in-person classes due to COVID guideline breaches. These strict policies and punishments are coming on the heels of reports from Notre Dame and other universities who have already experienced significant outbreaks.
Although Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that sending students home could create widespread outbreaks, universities like UNC Chapel Hill have already pulled the plug on an in-person semester.
Millen did follow his statement with a clarification that, while making an example of students might be effective in preventing an outbreak, it is never good to put the entire fault on the students if and when an outbreak does occur.
“In the event of a breakout, not all the blame should be placed on the students,” Millen said. “I don’t ever want to see a situation in which a single student is being told that they caused a disaster.”