Last week, Claremont Yik Yak was ablaze with the news that Pirate Party would be for Claremont McKenna College students only. Students were infuriated that they would not be able to attend the iconic party, arguably the best party on the Claremont social calendar, which takes place outdoors on CMC’s Parents Field. This is yet another disappointment caused by the Claremont Colleges’ stringent COVID-19 policies.
Last Saturday night, hundreds of Pomona College juniors and seniors gathered in Walter’s Restaurant in the Claremont Village for an indoor, school-sanctioned Spring Formal, complete with food, wine, and a sweaty crowd dancing without any masks. I left the party feeling confused. Scores of data show that indoor social interactions like Spring Formal are far riskier than outdoor events. Why would the school deem Pirate Party, an outdoor event, more dangerous than what I just experienced?
Not allowing non-CMC students to go to Pirate Party is merely one instance of abundant contradictory and excessive decisions that the Claremont Colleges have made in the name of COVID-19 safety. Cracking down on fun, safe activities for no legitimate reason is one thing. The more serious issue is the fact that COVID-19 policies have created an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, resentment, and anger; they have unnecessarily harmed students’ mental health and have taken away irreplaceable educational opportunities.
Take, for instance, what happens when students test positive for COVID-19. Students are moved to a room in a designated isolation dorm, where they have to stay for anywhere from five to 10 days, often sharing a room with a stranger. On top of having no personal space, students are literally not allowed to leave, not even to go for a walk.
The restrictiveness and loneliness of this time take a huge toll on students’ well-being. Madeleine Mount-Cors PO ’23, who recently moved to isolation at Oldenborg Center, noted the difficulty of recovering in such an environment, where “students are provided with no supplies such as simple over-the-counter medications, and are left to rely on friends to bring them the resources to be able to recover.” Mount-Cors added, “their policy feels disingenuous and performative.”
Katherine Purev PO ’23, another student who experienced isolation, spoke of the mental health difficulties she experienced while in isolation, bunking with strangers in Oasis. “Basically, quarantine was brutal. I felt so claustrophobic…I felt immobilized physically but also mentally,” Purev said. “The presence of other people makes me feel like I can’t just relax, especially when I’m recovering from being sick.”
Throughout conversations with my friends and classmates about college under COVID-19, the same question kept coming up: what does Pomona expect from us? The strictness of its policies is infantilizing, suggesting that it has no faith in its students to have any care for the larger community. Nick Morgenstein PO ’23 was especially disturbed by this fact. “It felt condescending and insulting that the administration didn’t trust us to safely leave our rooms for at least a small portion of our time in quarantine,” Morgenstein said. “Pomona students are deeply respectful and conscientious; I have no doubt that a student leaving for fresh air would be extraordinarily cautious and responsible.”
Students’ education also suffers from being put into isolation. Some professors are not able to — or choose not to — run hybrid classes, meaning that students who are in isolation for ten days miss ten days of class. Purev explained, “Some of my professors didn’t even respond to my emails telling them I had COVID-19 so I just totally missed class; others gave me a Zoom link, but of course listening in to a class on a computer is hard.” But it’s just not necessary to punish students in this way for getting sick; CMC has outfitted all of its classrooms with cameras and screens, making it simple and accessible for professors to include quarantined students by Zoom.
All of this results in students being terrified of testing positive, not because of the sickness itself, but due to Pomona’s needlessly punitive consequences. The fear is intensified by stories about the Pomona administration giving harsh punishments for simple misunderstandings of a convoluted policy. Jude Iredell PO ’23 accidentally missed a third COVID-19 test in the fall semester because the testing center ran out of tests one Friday afternoon. Despite a school administrator promising to rectify the record, Iredell almost faced suspension for the entire spring semester until he convinced the administration of their mistake and had the decision overturned. I have heard of other cases like Jude’s, who didn’t end up as lucky as he did.
It’s also important to note that Pomona is singularly conservative with its COVID-19 policies. Other schools have adapted their policies as we have gained more protections against the virus. Stanford University, for example, has suspended its policy requiring asymptomatic surveillance testing and no longer requires masks in most indoor settings. USC also no longer requires masks in indoor settings, and its vaccinated and boosted community members do not have to test weekly.
Other liberal arts colleges are also not as draconian as Pomona. My friend Emily Hall, who attends Carleton College in Minnesota, paints a very different picture of isolation at her school: “People are certainly allowed to go outside, and people [in isolation] don’t have to isolate from one another.” Likewise, Bard College in New York, where my younger brother is in school, has not had any sort of mandatory testing or a mask mandate in months. Neither college, to my knowledge, has experienced a major outbreak.
On top of everything, Los Angeles County no longer requires mask-wearing indoors. Even though our entire 5C community is required to be vaccinated and boosted, with very few exceptions, many of the 5Cs still have strict mask mandates. Only 37 percent of LA County residents are fully vaccinated and boosted. LA County also does not suggest weekly asymptomatic testing for college students who are up to date on vaccinations. It is performative for Pomona to maintain such strict policies when students can stroll across the street from campus and be under practically zero restrictions in any restaurant, venue, or store.
In a recent weekly update on April 20, Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr wrote, “We’ve learned that to live and learn well in a world of digital immersion, we need in-person, face-to-face education more than ever before.” We all know that Zoom class is a stunted facsimile of a liberal arts education; the leadership of our college acknowledges it frequently. But after a predictable uptick in COVID-19 cases in the weeks following spring break, many classes abandoned in-person instruction and went back onto Zoom. The administration canceled in-person dining and most in-person campus events for several weeks. Campus morale plunged as students lost out on opportunities such as foreign language lunch tables, guest speakers, plays and concerts, meaningful class discussions, and the precious social life that Pomona prides itself on as a residential college. The school began to resemble 2020, despite all the protections and knowledge we now have about the virus. What does it mean for the reality of campus life to contradict the public messaging of the college?
This hypocrisy is what has bothered me the most about Pomona during COVID-19. It has been disheartening and demoralizing to live within an institution that claims to have students’ best interests at heart, but whose actions fail to live up to its own words. Countless times this year, I’ve sat bewildered in front of yet another terse email that sets out new rules without explanation or justification. Students would be happier and more understanding if Pomona would be transparent and honest, and if the college could communicate frankly and take responsibility when its actions are wrong or cause harm.
As a senior about to graduate, I have a personal stake in all of this. I have been confused and angry about Pomona’s COVID-19 policies. I feel robbed of the rewarding, enjoyable senior year that the school could and should have spent my tuition on. I have heard the anger and disappointment of many of my classmates. I feel for the students on campus who have missed classes and learning opportunities, for those who received merciless sanctions, and for students whose mental health deteriorated in isolation.
It makes me sad to watch the school I love decline in this way. I wonder how many of my classmates will look back fondly on their time at Pomona, compared to previous classes. If the school doesn’t change course, Pomona will continue to fail its students and graduates.
Guest columnist Frances Sutton PO ‘22 is an art history major from San Francisco, California. She wishes she could go to Pirate Party!