In response to Malhotra: Existing precautions create community while protecting each other

Alice Wanamaker

When I got the call from the Health Center that I had contracted COVID-19, the main emotion I felt was gratitude. I wasn’t glad I had contracted a dangerous and not fully understood virus — as a student with asthma, I was nervous about the potential short- and long-term health consequences. But I was incredibly grateful that I had gotten COVID at Williams instead of at home, where it would have been impossible to avoid exposing my immunocompromised mother. Here, I could safely isolate myself in my room, with the space and resources to not expose anyone. Here, the College’s tools and policies meant that I could keep people safe.

“What are we sacrificing for? The unvaccinated who won’t protect themselves?” Niko Malhotra 24 asked in a recent opinion piece, arguing that COVID restrictions on campus should be lifted in order to prioritize student mental health and campus community. Malhotra fails to recognize that the potential impacts of COVID are drastically different for some students than for others, regardless of vaccination status. By following precautions, we are protecting students for whom COVID symptoms would be more than just a cold. We are protecting students who don’t have a safe home to go to if they have to quarantine or if the College sends students home due to  high COVID rates. While Malhotra argues that restrictions bring about “unacceptable social harms, especially on children and young people,” a far more unacceptable social harm would be abandoning public health precautions and exposing vulnerable community members to a deadly virus.

Malhotra notes that some measures adopted by the College are stricter than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, citing the CDC’s suggestion that those who test positive for COVID can quarantine for only five days and then leave isolation without testing, while Williams allows students to leave isolation only if they receive a negative antigen test. However, the CDC ruling was incredibly controversial and has been derided by experts and the general populace alike. For example, former Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently tweeted that he did not believe people should follow this new mandate, and suggested that the guideline changes may be “a compromise to keep the economy open in the face of inadequate tests.” Being a small and immensely wealthy institution, Williams is able to keep a more rigid testing regimen than what is economically viable for the nation as a whole. “There’s not a scientist or doctor I’ve met yet who wouldn’t [test before leaving isolation],” Adams said.

Furthermore, contrary to Malhotra’s impression of student opinion, some students feel that avoiding COVID even beyond school requirements is a personal priority. Rika Yahashiri, a first-year on the swim team, told me that she had abided by stricter COVID protocols than most of her peers out of fear of being unable to compete in her first NESCAC swim championships or compromising her athletic ability by contracting long COVID. “If I get it, that’s my season,” Yahashiri said. She has barely seen her friends in person over Winter Study, following stricter policies than Williams mandated in order to protect her athletic experience. Weaker COVID restrictions would prevent students like Yahashiri from making these types of choices and make campus even more inhospitable to those for whom avoiding COVID is a central priority. 

This Winter Study has been boring, isolating, and unpleasant for me and for many others. But this fall semester was wonderful. For my first semester at Williams, it felt exactly like the “personal and intimate Williams culture” Malhotra claims has been eroded by COVID restrictions. When we got the news that restrictions would be strengthened as an incredibly contagious variant bore down on Berkshire County (where over ten percent of COVID tests are currently coming back positive — a reason Williams should not adopt the more relaxed policies outside of our campus, as Malhotra argues), I understood this decision making. I knew that the typical Williams culture would be waiting in the spring, and that I and many others would be safer because of  the temporary isolation. Furthermore, The temporary restrictions of the past few weeks, which will become noticeably lighter in mid-February, do create challenges in building community, but they do not in any way make it impossible. I did make friends in January — in my Winter Study class during our weeks of in-person learning, in my entry, and even online. 

Malhotra states that “fear has replaced trust as the dominant sentiment on campus.” My experience during Winter Study has shown me that this idea is simply untrue.  It is undeniable that COVID restrictions can lead to isolation and loneliness. I am in isolation as I write this article; I am unhappy, and I miss my friends. Yet I have received an incredible amount of kindness and support from those friends throughout my quarantine — from bringing me garlic knots to sending me dog photos to simply asking me, over and over, “When can we see you again?” Opportunities for connection exist despite and within COVID restrictions, and it is those opportunities for communal care and empathy that should be celebrated and emphasized in this time of risk.

An able-bodied student with no pressing commitments in the next few weeks may understandably feel that the risk from contracting COVID is relatively minor. They may  individually choose to risk exposure in exchange for more freedom. However, no one is making that decision in a vacuum, and it is irresponsible for anyone to act as if they are. In both his recent article and a previous opinion piece written in September, Malhotra asked the campus what vaccinated individuals owed to the broader community. In today’s situation — as of Jan. 31, the current positivity rate on campus is the highest it has been since the pandemic began — the answer is a great deal. We owe it to our friends, classmates, and neighbors, to our staff and faculty who do not get to choose whether they come in contact with the student body, to those who are particularly vulnerable, and to those who love people who are, to take all these situations into account when considering our own behavior. And while living on the College campus, we have the opportunity to be safe and cared for while we do so.

We have survived restrictions before. In the fall, even with some limitations, we felt the freedom, joy, and connection that came from a community that had stuck it out to create safety for everyone. We will feel that again — if we protect and care for each other now. Malhotra’s conclusion at the end of his article is completely correct: “Williams must focus on the well-being of its students.” By making campus safe for the vulnerable during this Omicron surge, Williams has done exactly that.

Alice Wanamaker ’25 is from Easthampton, Mass.