Two months into an endemic response, the pandemic is still affecting student life on campus, albeit more quietly than in previous years.
To many returning students, the most striking thing about campus this semester has been what is no longer present. No COVID-19 test dropboxes at every corner, no signs on building entry doors encouraging people to mask up, no pods of infected students being taken to quarantine in East Campus and no to-go boxes in Anderson Commons. These changes, among others, marked a major shift in Wheaton College’s campus protocols for the 2022-23 school year.
“This year feels most like my freshman year,” said senior business/economics major Susannah Bennett. “During the first school year with COVID , it felt like there was a general anxiety underlying everything on campus, especially with the challenge of trying to connect with people. This year, there is more freedom to gather.”
In a July 22 email sent to undergraduate students, the COVID-19 Leadership Team, which consists of administrators including President Philip Ryken, announced that the campus would be moving from “a pandemic posture to an endemic response” to the virus that shut down nearly all college operations in March 2020.
In August of 2020, students returned to campus for the first time since the pandemic began. Protocols were stricter, including required social distancing in classes, dining areas, and residence halls, as well as masking requirements in all campus spaces with the exception of individual living quarters.
During the 2020-21 school year, all students were tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis. Once vaccines became available, fully vaccinated students were exempt from the weekly testing requirement.
This year, there is no mandatory testing, but Student Health Services continues to provide tests as needed. Students with symptoms who have not recently tested for COVID can take a test at SHS for $10, while those who have received a positive result from an at-home COVID testing kit are provided with a confirmatory test at no cost.
Students Health Services Director Beth Walsh has noticed the effect the changes have had on her department. Last year, to inform students of their exposure to the virus, SHS would contact 10-15 students who may have been close contacts of an infected student each time there was a positive test result on campus. This year, however, the contact-tracing responsibility has been shifted to the students, who are now expected to inform their close contacts on their own time.
Walsh said that the changes have smoothed things out at North Harrison Hall, where Student Health Services is located, and for student life on campus overall.
“The new protocols have certainly eased the workload of the staff at Student Health Services,” Walsh said. “More importantly, they have also minimized the disruption and anxiety for the students who have the virus.”
Although campus protocols are minimal in comparison to previous years, COVID has not disappeared from campus. So far this semester, there have been 89 cases. The first case was reported on Aug. 15. As of Oct. 28, the most recent case was reported on Oct. 24.
After testing positive using an at-home kit on Aug. 26, senior anthropology major Christian Voetberg was required to visit SHS to take a second test to confirm his previous results, in accordance with guidelines listed in the July 22 email. Once confirmed, he was excused from classes to complete his self-isolation period. After five days of quarantining (not including day zero) in his off-campus apartment while symptomatic, Voetberg was free to return to campus. He was still required to wear a mask for five additional days afterward.
However, in another COVID-related change from previous years, Voetberg was not excused from chapel during his initial five-day isolation period. In an introductory email on Aug. 23, the Chaplain’s Office made it clear that COVID-related absences should now be covered by the student’s normal allotment of 11 chapel absences per semester.
Voetberg said he was unaware of the change in protocol until he checked his chapel attendance record several weeks later.
“During the first five days, I couldn’t go to chapel,” Voetberg said, “but it wasn’t excused. I might be on chapel probation because of that.”
Bennett tested positive for COVID on Sept. 6. Although she did not get the virus until this year, Bennett has experienced all of the pandemic phases during her time at Wheaton, including pre-pandemic, the original quarantine, the following pandemic-affected school year, and now this year’s lessened restrictions.
“I think SHS and the school did what they could to address the situation,” Bennett said. “Some people in my life were feeling anxious about COVID, and the restrictions helped to ease their conscience, which I was glad for.”