OPINION: Pomona College has failed in its handling of COVID-19

Four students wearing masks chat outdoors.
Pomona College’s handling of COVID-19 cases on campus has been worrying, inefficient and endangering, argues Abby Loiselle PO ’23. (Xiao Jiang • The Student Life)

Students were absent from campus for 18 months. It took less than eight weeks to realize how drastically Pomona College had failed to prepare for a return to in-person education during a pandemic. Two weeks ago, President G. Gabrielle Starr sent a weekly update to students with a mere sentence informing the community of seven new positive COVID-19 cases on campus. The email’s undertone was optimistic, highlighting the declining case rate in Los Angeles County. What most students didn’t see was the chaos behind the school’s response to these cases.

With ineffective guidelines, a poor administrative response and arbitrary punishments, Pomona has showcased a complete disregard for the physical and emotional wellbeing of students amidst its COVID-19 response. 

Even in the most basic of COVID-19 preparedness, Pomona lacks the efficiency necessary to protect its community. Effective communication with students is key to promoting a healthy environment. However, with a dangerously slow process of informing students they have tested positive and a confusing system of contact tracing, Pomona created alarming fear among students. 

Regarding protocol on being moved into quarantine, do not assume that receiving an email without a subsequent call from Student Health Services (SHS) implies a negative result. Numerous students within the past three weeks received a positive test result at night and were not contacted by SHS until the next morning at 9 a.m. With only a test result in hand, these students had no clear instructions as to immediate next steps. These delays leave COVID-19-positive students to fear for the health and safety of their roommates and friends as well as themselves.  

Once placed in quarantine, Pomona continues to demonstrate a neglect for students who test positive: Numerous times, quarantined students had to call to get their food delivered to their room as it was either sent to the wrong room or just forgotten. I also know of one student with dietary restrictions that were routinely not met. 

Aside from nutritional concerns, the rooms in which these students spent 10 days barely met living standards. One student was not delivered hand soap until halfway through quarantine. 

For weeks, the Pomona community has received Starr’s confident emails that the school was safe from a rise in infection rates. Students have been lured into a false sense of security. In the event of a global pandemic, constant optimism is not the way to prepare students for the inevitability of an increasing case rate and potential safety risk. 

Walking into such a situation completely unaware of the likelihood that students get sick is throwing everyone to the wolves. Anxiety levels will rise faster than the case rate on sports teams. 

In general, the conflicting messages from the administrative branches at the school regarding COVID-19 protocol have been incredibly worrisome. Pomona-Pitzer’s athletic department told student-athletes that they could not leave their rooms unless it was to get food or attend class. Meanwhile, SHS informed these individuals that they were free to exercise or be outside as long as they were alone. The athletic department also told students that they had to reach out to the contact tracers to ask if they should be in modified quarantine after having been in contact with a student who tested positive. Keep in mind, in the interest of privacy, these students were not supposed to know which of their peers had tested positive. 

The message was, essentially, “ask not what the contact tracers can do for you, but what you can do for the contact tracers.”

Modified quarantine is not the ideal solution that the Pomona administration would like its students to believe. According to school rules, those in modified quarantine are allowed to attend classes. But what about a professor’s comfort level, or that of their classmates? Numerous professors expressed the desire that students who were exposed to COVID-19 avoid attending in-person instruction. Regardless of L.A. County’s guidelines, the school’s protocol did not solicit perspectives from those whom these rules would directly impact. 

Further failing to consider the people affected by these administrative decisions, the punishment assigned to those who break COVID-19 protocol is entirely arbitrary. The suspension of Drew “Ziggy” Carter PO ’23 is a key example of the harm Pomona has caused its students in order to promote a brand of student compliance towards safety measures. 

If the goal is to promote a learning experience for students who make mistakes, the school should not be so quick to impose strict, punitive action. There are no benefits to forcing a student off campus for failing to comply with rigid rules that do not make exceptions for extenuating circumstances. 

Particularly when the administration refuses to comment on these disciplinary actions, there is no learning experience for the rest of campus. No one is benefiting from these closed-door conversations and hushed punishments. Students are expected to fear this mysterious “COVID task force” in order to stay in line. The lack of transparency in Pomona’s administrative decisions regarding COVID-19 is demonstrative of their utter lack of regard for students’ mental well-being. 

There has been no intention behind any COVID-19 policy decision made this year. It has been either performative or a theft of students’ time on campus and in some cases, the cost of their tuition.

Cases will continue to appear on campus in the coming months. It’s time to stop hiding behind closed doors. Pomona should be held accountable for protecting not only the health of the student body, but their mental and emotional well-being. 

Abby Loiselle PO ’23 is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She runs for Pomona-Pitzer cross country. 

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