• Corey Sloan

What It’s Like to Go to a School Made for Anti-Maskers; or, How To Disable The Student Body

I’m a nervous person. Diagnosed with three anxiety disorders, it makes sense that I’d be worried about COVID. I try to ignore my worries as best I can, when I can. But when it comes to the COVID-19 Task Force and Hamilton’s response to COVID, my anxieties go far beyond the norm, and far beyond what I’m able to ignore as just my own anxiety.

I’ll start at the beginning. The February 22nd update from the Task Force allowed students to stop wearing masks almost everywhere except the classroom. When it came out, I was stunned. All I could think to myself was, who signed off on this? Yes, cases are going down, and yes, Hamilton has “low” case numbers (with over 200 student cases and 55 faculty cases since the beginning of the semester just over a month ago, the numbers are not clear), but that’s likely only because of our strict mask policies and vaccine requirement! Then, just a week later, the March 1st guidelines made masks optional in even more settings — including some classrooms. Just a week later!

It’s easy to defend these decisions, because the CDC and government’s lax masking/vaccine mandates can be used as proof that it’s okay for Hamilton to do the same, but I don't see it this way. To me, both the CDC and the government (federal and state) are prioritizing the wants of corporations and businesses over keeping people safe. I say this because COVID hasn’t gotten less infectious — only more so — and Long COVID is still a risk, but the mask mandates are still going away. The public’s desire to return to normalcy isn’t aligned with the reality of COVID. I feel like every day I see another story of someone having disastrous side effects of COVID, all grouped under Long COVID, also called Long Haul COVID or post-COVID conditions (symptoms include trouble with brain functioning, lung problems/scarring, heart problems, fatigue, and more).

This reality, which is more common than most people think, is easy to ignore because it’s a symptom of a larger problem of ableism and the invisibility of disabled people in society. COVID is a disabling illness. But because people already systematically ignore disabled people, these long-term effects either aren’t talked about or are seen as rare, not worth mentioning. The fact that they happen at all is proof that COVID is more dangerous than people make it out to be at the moment. Yes, Omicron is less deadly. But even the most mild of COVID cases can and do lead to disastrous Long COVID symptoms.

So I ask again. Who signed off on these new guidelines? Why? Who are they trying to protect? Who are they willing to let get hurt?

I am not immunocompromised, but I have a weaker immune system than most, and have friends who are immunocompromised. I live with my 83 year old grandmother when not at college. The risk of getting COVID and giving it to my friends or family is bigger than most people want to make it out to be. Further, testing doesn’t help people not get sick, it helps them not get other people sick. The only thing that actually helps people avoid getting sick is quarantine/isolation, and masks. Both parties wearing them. Not just the people who want to. In order to actually protect the vulnerable in our community, masks have to be required in at least classes, if not most indoor settings. And I find it hard to believe that this is an unpopular opinion, but our COVID guidelines shouldn’t be based around the wants of non-immunocompromised students, it should be based around protecting the most vulnerable in our community. Is that not common sense?

I don’t wear a mask when I’m with my friends. I think most people don’t. I know that makes me sound like a hypocrite. But there is a huge difference between not wearing a mask with friends, and practically never wearing a mask. The opportunities for exposure, the amount of time exposed, goes up exponentially when there are looser restrictions. I still wear a mask everywhere indoors unless eating or drinking, when not in someone’s dorm room or common room. I get stares for it, especially in dining halls, despite the explicit mention in the February 22nd email of “be[ing] respectful of those who want to continue to wear masks.” Jodel, after the first relaxing of restrictions, was calling people “sheep.” And I bet people probably think I’m unvaccinated or unboosted or for some other reason am wearing a mask. But I’d rather be assumed to be unvaccinated (not that there’s anything wrong with a medical or religious exemption to vaccination, but rather that there is a cultural stigma around remaining unvaccinated in liberal/left-wing settings) than be at risk of Long Covid, or giving COVID to my friends and family.

It feels like a conscious oversight on behalf of the Task Force and the Hamilton administration to have relaxed the mask guidelines. They must know immunocompromised students are on campus, and yet the restrictions have loosened. When I sent a strongly worded comment to the Task Force, the response was less than effective. It did nothing to quell my fears. Karen Leach, in her response (dated February 24th), said that she “[understood] my concerns,” and that “the Task Force seeks in all its decisions to balance our educational, social, mental health, and physical safety goals … At any time you have concerns we recommend that you continue to wear a mask and avoid social situations where COVID transmission is likely.” My question for her, and the rest of the Task Force, at this point, is this: How am I expected to avoid social situations where COVID transmission is likely when masks are no longer explicitly required in class? Or when I need to eat, and therefore need to spend at least 20-30 minutes inside? Am I expected to become a recluse, never seeing my friends? Why can’t my school be doing more to protect me, rather than expecting me to protect myself?

How can I feel safe on campus when I am actively at risk of getting COVID practically everywhere I go? Why not keep at least the February 22nd restrictions in place? Especially considering that there was only a week between the first relaxation and the second? That’s simply not enough time to see the effect of it. What happens if I get COVID, and bring it back to New York City? What happens if I get COVID, and, as someone with an off-campus job, bring it to people in Utica?

Melissa Richards, a member of the COVID Task Force, had lunch with me the other day, before the March 1st changes — she, completely randomly, came over to a friend and I while we were eating. We had a conversation about the February 22nd guidelines. I expressed my fear and anxieties. In response, I was told, essentially, to not worry — the Task Force was doing what was best for the school. I was then sent platitudes over email — no scientific/statistical reasoning for the changes, and, more importantly, no proof that these changes were based on the comfort levels of students and staff. Instead, I received a poem and some songs. Those do nothing to protect me, my friends, or my family. All they do is make her, and the Task Force at large, feel better about their decisions that are negatively affecting real-life Hamilton students. I know many students are happy about these changes. I recognize that COVID restrictions are hard, and attending college during a pandemic is stressful. But I ask you: what are you doing to protect your peers? What are you doing to care for the people around you? Are you more concerned about your ears hurting from mask strings (mine do too), or about your peers’ brain, heart, and lung functioning post-COVID?

Moments after the March 2nd guidelines were released, I emailed all of my professors letting them know my thoughts. All three of my professors responded saying that they agreed with me, and would be keeping masks in the classroom. One sent a strongly (and fairly) worded email to the class detailing the mask policy for class. After this, I am left wondering: who is the COVID Task Force consulting? Are they asking for peoples’ comfort levels, or operating solely off of policies that, as I established, are made with the interests of businesses and corporations in mind? Because, as seen in my professors’ responses, it’s not based on all the professors or other faculty/staff wanting masks gone. It’s not based on all the students wanting masks gone. Further (and this I take from a conversation with one of my professors), by leaving it up to the professor’s discretion, the Task Force is neglecting to realize the pressure that this puts on professors, especially marginalized professors who may be less respected or listened to by privileged students. Marginalized professors are put in a position where they either have to neglect their own safety, or put themselves at risk of being ridiculed, harassed, or otherwise discriminated against by privileged/non-marginalized students.

I’d like to know who actually signed off on the March 1st update. Was it the whole Task Force, or a select few members? Are there members who disagree with this change? Those responsible for these changes should be signing their names on those emails, rather than hiding behind the Task Force label. I want to know who specifically to contact, and who to blame. It’s not enough to say it’s from the Task Force. For transparency’s sake, we — I and the rest of the student body — deserve to know who is actually making these decisions and publicizing them.

I am afraid. I am afraid of getting COVID. I am afraid of the long-term effects of getting COVID. I am a writer. I am afraid that if I get COVID, my ability to think, write, and express my ideas (let alone have my ideas) will deteriorate. I am afraid that my peers don’t care. I am afraid that my peers care more about their wants than others’ needs. When does it become too much for me to handle on my own? I handle, on my own, my classes, my job, my mental health, and now my physical health? Something which is 100% dependent on others? Why do some students get to dictate the policies, and therefore futures (as Long COVID can have semi-permanent to permanent effects on the brain, lungs, and heart), of all students? How did we go from understanding that everyone wearing masks protects everyone from COVID, to expecting people to protect themselves with a tool designed to protect others?

I am asking — pleading, begging — for people to wear masks. Please don’t expect everyone to just be okay with getting COVID. Please don’t expect everyone to just recover. Because that just doesn’t happen. It’s not that easy.

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