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The Carletonian

Carleton announces loosening of COVID-19 requirements for end of year

On March 12, 2020, then-president Steven Poskanzer released an all-campus email: “We are moving to limit the number of people on campus and to teach at least the first half of Spring Term 2020 courses remotely, helped by a one-week extension of spring break.” 

What started as a temporary measure led to a completely online Spring Term and an onslaught of online courses, social distancing and contact tracing. Now, more than three years and a change of administration later, the last remnants of Carleton’s COVID-19 response are fading. 

Starting June 5, 2023, Carleton will no longer require COVID-19 nor influenza vaccines. The college will no longer handle contact tracing. The rapid testing site will close. The COVID-19 Core Team, long a staple of campus-wide emails, will cede authority to SHAC when it comes to infectious diseases like COVID-19. 

“We continue to have confidence in our community,” said Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston, a member of the COVID-19 Core Team. She referenced the announcement sent out by Carleton Today, noting that the changes represent an “important shift from community-wide mandates to personal responsibility.” 

“We don’t expect there will not be cases of COVID on our campus next year,” said Livingston. “We will continue to ask people to follow the CDC guidelines going forward. Testing and masking continue to be tools we have at our disposal.” 

The changes come in anticipation of the end of the federal public health emergency, which the Department of Health and Human Services announced will expire on May 11, 2023. 

In their announcement, the college cited “discussions with our consulting epidemiologist, a review of data from peer institutions and public health guidance,” as well as the state of emergency’s expiration, as the rationale for the change. 

There are five major policy changes contained in the announcement: 1) COVID-19 and flu vaccines will be recommended, not required; 2) Carleton’s rapid test site will close; 3) Carleton will no longer contact trace; 4) Students will now (for the most part) isolate in place; 5) SHAC, not the COVID-19 Core Team, will handle the college’s COVID-19 response. 

Much of campus has returned to a pre-pandemic “normal,” given the low rate of reported COVID-19 cases on campus. Only 12 positive cases have been reported since the beginning of Spring Term 2023, according to Carleton’s Covid Dashboard

Masking still continues to be relatively common on campus, and the change announced on March 30 will have no effect on Carleton’s masking policy: “Faculty, staff and students will continue to have the ability to require that masks be worn in spaces they ordinarily control—such as their classroom, office or residential space—and individuals who choose to mask will be fully supported,” reads the announcement. 

Carleton professors commented on what the announcement would mean for their classrooms. Professor of Computer Science Eric Alexander encourages masking in his classroom and masks himself. 

“My first reaction to the policy change was minimal. I don’t expect much change in people’s existing behaviors, at least initially,” said Alexander. “I imagine people in our community will generally continue to vaccinate, and I haven’t been close enough to the contact tracing operation to have any idea how effective it was at this point anyway.” 

However, Alexander did voice concerns about how the changes will affect testing habits in the future. 

“One of the reasons I [encourage masking in the classroom] is how many students have told me or my colleagues that they are hesitant to get tested because either they are concerned about how their lives will be disrupted if they test positive or because they aren’t able to go get tested during the limited hours of the rapid testing site,” continued Alexander. “Given these already existing trends, I worry that decreased availability of testing increases the potential for undetected cases to spread through campus.” 

Alexander also wanted to ensure that students are aware of all the resources available to them, specifically that there is a stock of free, at-home tests available to all students in Hoppin House, the home-base of Carleton Security Services. 

Ethan Struby, a professor of economics, also commented on the change. 

“The college administration is making a decision that is basically consistent with other institutional responses at other colleges and different levels of government,” said Struby. “Particularly once mandatory testing was removed and everything became reliant on individuals self-reporting, the writing seemed like it was on the wall. So part of me just takes it as an exogenous change I have to deal with and have very little control over.” 

While Struby did not share Alexander’s concerns when it came to the availability of tests, he voiced consternation when it came to the removal of the vaccine mandante. 

“I am confused by the removal of a vaccine mandate (for flu and COVID), purely from a cost-benefit perspective,” said Struby. “I understand that random testing and strict isolation protocols imposed large costs (financial and otherwise), and, given the evolving public health environment, those costs may no longer have been worth it. But the cost of requiring vaccination and boosters seems small, and the benefits of requiring those vaccines for the campus community and Northfield is pretty clear.” 

Struby pointed to a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) report released in October 2022 titled “College Vaccine Mandates Reduced Local COVID Infections and Deaths,” which found that vaccine mandates at colleges had public health benefits for both those on-campus and in the local community. 

From a student perspective, Emma Freedman ‘23 commented on what the changes will mean for the rising cohort of students under her. 

“I feel pretty good about the changes generally. Although campus doesn’t feel completely normal, I think it’s as normal as it’s going to get — at least in the near future,” said Freedman. “I think it makes sense to switch from a community-wide mandate to a policy of personal responsibility. It’s just not sustainable to maintain the policies that have been in place for the indefinite future.” 

Freedman agreed that Carleton students, in particular, can be trusted to make decisions with the best interests of their fellow students in mind, especially when it came to the vaccine mandate. 

“I’m biased because I had some friends who suffered medical complications after the vaccine,” said Freedman. “But I think making vaccinations recommended was a good call, because that is an area where I think the majority of students who can get vaccinated will get vaccinated. I trust that the people who choose not to will make that choice intentionally and carefully. I have a lot of faith in Carleton students to support each other and do their due diligence.”

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