While many colleges across the US are cancelling spring break altogether, or at least encouraging or requiring students to remain on campus, Carleton recently announced that students who wish to stay on campus over the upcoming two-week Spring Break must petition for approval.
In her “5th Week Pandemic Update” email on February 3, Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston announced that “students who are on campus this winter and are also approved to live on campus in the spring will be able to petition to remain on campus over spring break.”
On February 11, in the 6th Week update, Livingston further explained: “While the majority of college services are not available over Spring Break, we recognize some students may have situations that require housing [to] continue to be provided.” While international students will be automatically “approved to stay due to potential travel complications,” domestic students will only be approved if they “have a reason to stay on campus.”
This policy is a divergence from the college’s plans for Spring Break in 2020, when COVID-19 concerns were beginning to surface, but before Spring Term went remote. In an email to Residential Assistants on March 11, 2020, Associate Director for the Office of Residential Life Tanya Hartwig wrote: “Spring Break Housing is now open to all current students without needing to meet any of our typical requirements. There is no late fee for signing up or cancellation fee.”
Risks of Travel Might Not Qualify for Break Housing
In an interview with the Carletonian, Livingston clarified that not all students who request to stay on campus over break will be approved. She explained that “for COVID reasons, folks will absolutely be granted a reason to stay” – for instance, if a student’s hometown or home state is significantly less safe than Northfield regarding the virus.
However, the risk inherent in travel, regardless of the destination, will not necessarily be reason enough to grant approval. Livingston could not yet give a firm answer, as the Office of Residential Life will make final decisions regarding approval to stay over break.
Livingston suggested, though, that “the risk of travel is a hard one… I think the risks of travel are different, I think there’s a lot of safety precautions that the airlines or alternate modes of travel have implemented, so I’m not exactly sure if by itself that may be a reason, but it could be.”
While some safety precautions have been implemented by some airlines and other modes of travel, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) still warns: “Travel increases your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19. The CDC recommends that you do not travel at this time. Delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.”
More specifically, the CDC states: “Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces.” While air circulation and filtration on airplanes is highly effective, “social distancing is difficult on crowded flights and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19.” The mode of transportation to and from the airport “can also increase your chances of being exposed to the virus.”
In their assessment of the risks of air travel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Medical agrees, “Even with appropriate precautions, a relatively short domestic flight still carries moderate risks and should not be undertaken lightly.”
Peer Institutions Cancel or Alter Spring Breaks
In light of these risks to both the students’ home communities and the campus community upon their return, many peer institutions have opted to cancel or shorten their spring breaks this year. Top liberal arts schools such as Williams College and Amherst College have replaced the traditional spring breaks with a handful of “health days” interspersed throughout the spring semester.
Swarthmore College originally planned to cancel spring break, but ended up reinstating a one week, on-campus break in order to “support [students’] mental and physical well-being.” However, “To minimize the spread of COVID-19, and in the interest of the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff members, residential students will be required to remain on campus during the spring break. The Office of Student Affairs will partner with other departments on campus and students to provide a range of on-campus recreational and social opportunities during the break.”
Livingston emphasized that the case is different for the college given its unusual trimester calendar. “Infusing spring break days on a trimester calendar, it doesn’t really give you a break… I’m not sure anybody will feel rejuvenated or rested if you infuse a couple days.”
The trimester system necessitates a two-week break between terms so that professors have time to finalize grades and prepare for the next trimester, which is not a concern at semester schools, where spring breaks fall in the middle of a term. In addition, keeping students on campus for two trimesters with no break would add up to over five months on campus, as opposed to approximately four months at semester schools.The college certainly recognizes the risks of travel off-campus, even for much shorter trips. In the Fifth Week Pandemic Update, Livingston reiterated: “If you are living on campus or in Northfield Option, we strongly discourage any overnight travel off campus.”
Spring Break Services and Housing
Livingston told the Carletonian that the college does not want all students to stay on campus “because we’re on break.” Traditionally, many of the college’s services temporarily close or are limited over breaks, and there appear to be no plans to diverge from the normal protocol even amid an unprecedented pandemic.
Student Health and Counseling (SHAC), for instance, will be closed for the duration of Spring Break, and Livingston hinted that Gould Library may shut down as well. She did not disclose what other services would be on pause, but repeated, “everybody doesn’t need to be here during a two week break… there are a lot of services that are not here, a good number of our staff members will be gone over Spring Break, so we’re not fully operational during that Spring Break period.”
Livingston also stated that the push for students to leave campus over break was for their own wellbeing: “Spring Break is really a time for people to rejuvenate and prepare for Spring Term, and sometimes a different setting does that for you.”
Given this year’s exceptional circumstances, she allowed that “we’ll certainly have more folks who are here, but I don’t see a reason why we would have our entire 1,400 students be here over Spring Break.”
According to the 6th Week Pandemic Update, “All of the Residence Halls and Townhouses will be available for Spring Break Housing,” but residents of other campus housing may be relocated for the duration of the break.
Livingston told the Carletonian, however, that students in Residence Halls and Townhouses could be relocated as well, depending on how many other residents of those buildings are approved to stay.
“If there’s a house that has one person out of 20, ResLife will probably move that person to a temporary location,” or if there are only three or four people staying in one of the smaller Residence Halls, they may be relocated as well. The outlook for Townhouse residences remains unclear.
The Office of Residential Life will make final decisions regarding temporary relocation, and has not yet responded to the Carletonian’s inquiries.
If approved for break housing, students may opt to stay for only part of Spring Break, but once they have left campus, they may not return until Spring Term move-in. “Testing regimens for Spring Break are still being determined,” according to the “Spring Break 2021 On-campus Expectations for Students.”
The deadline for petitions to stay on campus is February 22.
Mandatory Meal Plan for Spring Break Residents
Though not mentioned in the body of the original email, the Spring Break Housing Request form linked in the 6th Week Pandemic Update, as well as a later email from the Office of Residential Life, revealed that break housing will cost $35 per day.
The $35 per day charge is up $20 from the Spring Break 2020 charge of $15 per day, which itself was an increase from the normal break housing charge of $10 per day, according to a March 10, 2020 announcement from Livingston.
In 2020, the increase to $15 was made “to include two meals per day,” whereas the dining halls were closed over previous breaks. This year, no explanation has yet been given for the significantly higher charge, which covers the same package of housing and two meals per day.
Director of Auxiliary Services and Special Projects Jesse Cashman disclosed that even with the higher charge, the college will likely lose money on dining services over break. Over “the last couple of breaks, the college has lost money on dining services, so we’ve been subsidizing students’ meal plans,” Cashman explained.
When the full student body is on a meal plan during the term, he explained, “that allows Bon App[etit] to buy more food for less.” Before the pandemic, the dining halls shut down entirely over breaks because food costs are higher when not bought in bulk, and it was not economical to keep dining services staff on for a relatively small number of students. Cashman added, “We’re purely offering these meal plans to accommodate students having a place to stay here on campus.”
The increased charge is mandatory even for students who are off board or on alternative meal plans during the term. “This is designed to help Carleton students keep the bubble of not needing to travel into town and to ensure food insecurity is not an issue for students over the break period,” the Office of Residential Life explained in a February 17 email.
“We don’t want folks to just go into town, frankly,” Livingston told the Carletonian. During the academic term, however, many students opt out of the meal plan, whether for financial reasons, COVID safety, dietary needs or personal preference, and the difference over the break period is unclear.
In response to COVID concerns regarding the dining halls and campus cafes, where diners must enter a space where others may have their masks off, even if only for a short time, Livingston said: “You can do contact-free eating in the dining halls, you can do contact-free eating in Sayles, as well. You’re not physically contacting anyone.”
To be sure, students do not physically come in contact with workers or other students in these areas, but there is still a real possibility of airborne transmission. Nonetheless, Livingston claimed that there is no evidence “that there’s any health and safety concerns… with students going into dining halls or into any sort of shared contact space. As a matter of fact, we’ve [been told by] the Minnesota Department of Health that our dining halls are probably the safest place for folks to go, to eat or pick up food.”
If students are truly uncomfortable entering dining halls and campus cafes, Livingston continued, “then they can also have a friend go pick up their food, if they’re that concerned about it.”