Disclaimer: Phoebe Wong is a staff writer at The Tufts Daily. Phoebe was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.
Although Tufts has succeeded in controlling the spread of the coronavirus through frequent testing, social distancing guidelines and a hybrid learning model, the past several weeks have shown a spike in cases on the Medford/Somerville campus, as well as an increased number of students in quarantine as a result of contact.
Rising cases prompted responses from the administration in the form of canceling athletic practices,increasing testing frequency and enforcing Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.
A Nov. 16 email signed by Dean James Glaser of the School of Arts and Sciences, Dean Jianmin Qu of the School of Engineering, Dean Nancy Bauer of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Michael Jordan, university infection control health director, restated that students are not to leave their residence hall or apartment to attend social gatherings.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of COVID positive cases on the Medford/Somerville campus and an increase in the number of close contacts for each positive case,” the email said.
Some students have not been following the university’s guidelines. “Jamie,” a sophomore who requested to be anonymous, disagreed with some of the restrictions in place.
“I felt that they should have been a bit more relaxed in the guidelines that you have to follow with your specific cohort,” Jamie said. “If they’re trying to make cohorts a group where you can be a little bit less strict with [those people], you might as well just go all the way.”
Prior to the university’s tightening of restrictions, students were permitted to relax certain physical distancing measures with members of their cohort. However, they were still required to wear face coverings except when in their bedroom with only their roommate, eating or “grooming,” according to Tufts’ Fall 2020 Campus Guide.
Until recently, Jamie had neglected to abide by any physical distancing guidelines, including the university’s mask-wearing mandate, with members of their cohort. They had relaxed physical distancing behavior with members outside their cohort as well, most often during weekend gatherings reminiscent of pre-pandemic times.
“Typically for fun, it’s just the usual Friday or Saturday night party,” they said. “I have been playing drinking games and doing typical college party night things, but we have been doing them with coronavirus in mind, like playing with water cups, or playing with masks on, limiting the people to 10 [and] limiting the people who come to people in the dorms.”
Jamie described an incident in which a resident assistant arrived in response to a noise complaint. They and the others in attendance concealed any visible alcohol, put on their masks and hid.
“Breaking the six foot rule or partying and drinking — that was just for fun. I think we still played it pretty safe and breaking those guidelines didn’t feel like an absolute violation of general people’s safety,” Jamie said. “If we were ever a few more than 10 people, people would go hide in the room if someone knocked on the door.”
Jamie added that no gathering they attended led to an outbreak of COVID-19, and they have not been quarantined or isolated yet this semester. Since the uptick in cases on campus, they have also begun to comply more closely with the university’s guidelines.
Phoebe Wong, a first-year, described the extent to which members of her class have complied with university protocols.
“You do see and hear about parties and other things of that sort, it definitely is happening,” Wong said.
She said it’s nearly impossible to follow the rules all the time, a sentiment that has been echoed by students in all classes.
She also said that even when RAs are aware of social gatherings in the dorms, they don’t always act on what they see.
“I think there’s probably also a problem with the RAs not having a ton of power to enforce things … I heard an RA the other night talking to my RA [and] to their friends just saying, ‘I kind of feel powerless,’” Wong said.
While RAs have been instructed not to “police” their residents, some feel an obligation to address negligent behavior while on duty, according to Arlyss Herzig, an RA in Houston Hall.
Herzig, a sophomore, reported that improper mask-wearing has been the most common violation she has observed, along with large-group gatherings in residence halls and off-campus apartments.
“If you see something, say something if you’re on duty,” Herzig said of her role in enforcing public health-related restrictions. “I would feel really uncomfortable having to [break up a party], because if people are partying, those are the people that clearly don’t care about coronavirus or don’t care about the rules.”
Wong also said that she feels Tufts hasn’t been responding appropriately to the social events from an administrative perspective.
“It seems like Tufts should be acknowledging this a little bit more because their expectations do not completely align with what they obviously must know is happening on campus,” Wong said.
Other RAs in Houston, besides Herzig, have at times called the Tufts University Police Department to assist in enforcing restrictions and dispersing large groups. TUPD, however, has been largely unhelpful, according to Herzig. Officers have reportedly placed blame on RAs for not handling misdemeanors themselves, and some have been indifferent.
“They’ve just told kids that they don’t care or they’ve told us to do our jobs better — they really haven’t handled it well,” Herzig said.
Some students, despite careful adherence to university guidelines, have endured periods of quarantine due to exposure to the virus. Nick Sokol, a sophomore, is one such student.
One member of his cohort in Harleston Hall tested positive for the virus in late October. He, his roommate and other members of his cohort were quarantined in The Mods for a 14-day period which included Halloween and election week.
“It was pretty boring and sad,” Sokol said. “It was kind of weird because we just heard about all this stuff happening outside … and we were in isolation, not able to do anything.”
Since the recent rise in cases, many students who originally planned on staying until winter break decided to go home early.
Wong is one such case.
“I am considerably more nervous, especially just because we hear about a lot more other people getting moved to The Mods or who are deciding to go home. I actually recently decided … to switch my flight and go home right after Thanksgiving,” Wong said.
She said that many other first-years also made the decision to go home earlier than they had originally planned.
“I’ve heard a lot of people changing their minds and deciding to go home earlier. And I think it kind of adds on, so when you hear more people going home, then more people decide that they should go home too,” Wong said.
Despite varying levels of adherence to university guidelines, many students expressed a similar desire to protect fellow members of the Tufts community. And even for those who have abided by the university’s protocols to their fullest extent, it has proven difficult to avoid contact with the virus.