After a long winter break, Fairfield University students are finally back on campus. However, this year’s January return is unlike any of the previous years. It comes at a time when the COVID-19 virus is circulating at extremely high levels, and several highly contagious variants of the disease are emerging.
Although University officials deemed last semester’s return to campus “successful,” it was not without its challenges. Fairfield did not end up having to send students home early, as many feared they would, but there were several mini-outbreaks of the virus, many of which were concentrated in the beach area. There were also many reports of students having large gatherings, or otherwise not adhering to the rules set by the University. Naturally, the University has been forced to institute new protocols, most of which revolve around testing and quarantining, that are different from the ones that students came to rely on in the fall.
In an email sent on Jan. 6, Fairfield announced that students would be moving back to campus in two phases; Phase One of the move-in would take place on Jan. 21 through 23, while Phase Two would take place on Jan. 30 and 31. Classes, which officially started on Jan. 25, will remain virtual for at least the first two weeks of the semester, with a projected switch to in-person learning on Feb. 10. Until that point, students living on campus are subjected to a modified quarantine, dubbed Study In Place. While students are under this quarantine, they will be unable to leave campus, meals will be grab-and-go and students are expected to remain in their rooms except to study in the John. A. Barone Campus Center, parts of the Dimenna-Nyselius Library, the Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies and the Charles F. Dolan School of Business, or get food and exercise on campus grounds. Students are also unable to host guests and visitors outside those that live in their residential community. In addition, students living at the beach will be barred from entering campus.
Also, because students will not be permitted to leave campus and go to the grocery store to buy food, all students, regardless of meal plan status, are allowed to get grab-and-go meals from the Daniel and Grace Tully Dining Commons or the Oak Room in the BCC. Students are assigned to a dining area based on where they live on campus. Food trucks are also available on the weekdays for lunch and dinner.
The Study In Place period was designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission on campus by waiting until all COVID-19 tests are taken and results are received before resuming in-person classes and normal activities. Prior to moving in, all students except those who have had a documented case of COVID-19 within the last 90 days, were required to take and mail a PCR test provided by Quest Diagnostics. After students moved in, the University began conducting a second round of testing in the Leslie C. Quick, Jr. Recreation Complex; students who returned in Phase One were tested on Jan. 25 and 26, while students who returned in the second phase will be tested on Feb. 2 and 3. Beach students were asked to come to campus for testing on Feb. 4. Finally, a third round of testing was conducted on Jan. 31 for Phase One students and will be conducted on Feb. 7 for Phase Two students. Commuter students should mail their tests about five days before in-person classes resume on Feb. 10.
In addition, at the recommendation of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, all students will be tested weekly, beyond the initial Study In Place period, through at least Feb. 28. This stands in contrast to the fall semester, in which only 5 to 10 percent of the University population was tested weekly. However; if community transmission rates fall in the coming weeks, it is possible that the University may return to only testing a fraction of the school community, according to a webinar hosted by the University on Jan. 12.
Despite the implementation of the Study In Place period and the ramped up testing, not everyone on campus is confident that allowing students to return to campus is the right decision.
“It’s not necessarily the best time to be bringing people back, with the cases being the way they are,” said Alice Henry ‘21.
Indeed, even during the fall semester, when community spread was lower than it is today, the University still recorded over 600 cases of COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff, both on and off campus, according to Fairfield’s COVID Dashboard. Though nowhere near as severe as those of other colleges and universities, Fairfield’s outbreak highlighted the fact that some students decided to defy the guidelines that were put in place by the University in order to slow the virus’s spread. Over the course of the fall semester, University officials sent numerous emails pleading with students to adhere to the restrictions. In one such email, sent by Dean of Students William Johnson following the Labor Day weekend after images surfaced showing students gathering without face coverings, he reminded students to show respect for those around them as well as the greater community.
In the message, he wrote: “Your behavior this past weekend has now cast doubts on whether or not you have the wherewithal to make this experience that so many have worked tirelessly to plan for you work.”
What’s more, many on campus aren’t convinced that the rule-following (or lack thereof) will improve for the spring semester.
“I don’t think students will be all that much better at following the rules because I think a lot of people are just sick of having restrictions,” said Emily Hanania ‘23.
Timothy Sacca ‘22 expressed similar sentiments. “There will always be some who stray away and do things that they aren’t supposed to,” he said.
Some University officials, however, are even less cheery about the spring semester than students are. Although Dean Johnson, for example, is confident that most students will continue to abide by mask and social distancing guidelines, he worries that students who have already been infected with COVID-19 and now think that they are immune to the virus will be more likely to skirt the rules.
“I believe the majority of students will continue to abide by the COVID-19 Student Directives as outlined,” Johnson said. “I know there will be those who will dismiss these directives that have been put in place to keep our community healthy. I am most concerned about students who have already experienced COVID-19 and their willingness to take risks because they believe they can’t be re-infected.”
However, some students are optimistic that the spring semester will be better than the fall, in large part because of the promising vaccines that are now being deployed across the country. In December, the Food and Drug Administration granted Emergency Use Authorization to biotech companies Pfizer and Moderna, who developed vaccines that are believed to be around 95 percent effective at preventing disease.
“I’m hopeful for the semester because of the introduction of the vaccine,” said Sean Crosby ‘21.
Kaitlin Tracy ‘22 is optimistic that as the semester goes on, the number of COVID-19 cases will decrease, as opposed to increasing in the way that they did in the fall.
“So many of my friends who are nursing majors have already gotten two doses of the vaccine, and with warmer weather coming in the spring, I think it will be better than last semester,” explained Tracy.
But some students, like Brian Crawley ‘21 believe that this semester has more of the same in store for Fairfield.
“I see this semester playing out just like the last one, with limited accessibility to campus and its facilities and more online schooling than in-person,” he said.
Overall, despite the higher level of community spread and the ever-present threat posed by students who choose not to follow the directives, most Fairfield students believe that it is safe for students to return to campus at this time, especially in light of the modified protocols.
“The testing capabilities being supplied by the school, in addition to mask requirements in social settings, should be able to control the coronavirus contagion so that Fairfield University’s students may return to campus,” said Connor Wimble ‘21.
Students are cognizant of the fact, however, that whether or not the semester is successful will ultimately be determined by their behavior.
“I think that if everyone takes the rules and regulations set in place by the University to keep the population safe seriously, then it will be safe on campus,” said Julia Fritz ‘23. “If we can look past the social aspect, I think we will be successful in keeping the campus safe.”