Potentially ‘tragic consequences’: Students surprised by, critical of University’s winter plans

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Student government president Vianna Vo ’21 has firsthand experience with the increased stresses on the Santa Clara County medical system, having worked at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose for the past six months. 

“I see the rising cases,” Vo said. “I see the number of ventilators that have to to go out. I hear the alarms go off every day.”

What has she concluded? “To think that Stanford wants to bring more students onto campus to possibly increase the risk is really irresponsible,” she said. 

Vo is one of many students who are concerned about Stanford’s Dec. 7 announcement of its plan to invite frosh, sophomores and transfer students to campus in winter quarter. Undergraduates said they were surprised by the announcement, and that they are concerned for the safety of local residents, service workers and other students. 

The decision arrived as Santa Clara County implemented a stay-at-home order that is set to end on Jan. 4, three weeks before students without special circumstances are set to move in. The decision also comes as the U.S. experiences record numbers of COVID-19 cases.

The University has said it is taking steps to adapt to the current state of the pandemic, although it remains confident that its testing regimen and safety protocols will keep students safe during the quarter. Provost Persis Drell wrote that the University will adopt a phased return for undergraduates to allow more time for the current surge to pass and to reduce the number of students who need to travel, move in and get tested at any one time. The University will also adopt an “enhanced COVID-19 testing protocol” and make adjustments based on recommendations by medical experts. 

During Friday’s virtual town hall meeting, administrators reemphasized that they are still planning to bring frosh and sophomores back on campus in the winter, but they did not guarantee that students will be able to return depending on COVID-19 conditions in January. 

Some students are concerned that this decision will endanger the surrounding community, which is already suffering from a surge in COVID-19 cases. This concern may be supported by Gundersen Medical Foundation geneticist Paraic Kenny’s research, which found a link between University COVID-19 infections and cases and deaths in the surrounding region.  

While Leya Elias ’21 said that she “would like to have a senior year,” she added that she was concerned that Stanford’s decision may exacerbate the issue of California running out of intensive care unit hospital beds and many people not being able to receive treatment due to a lack of space. (Santa Clara County is down to 36 intensive care unit beds as of Monday.)

“I think it’s really scary to think about because the way that those decisions are made, they usually have a lot to do with race and class,” Elias said. “I think the tragic consequence of these decisions will be affecting predominantly low income Black and brown communities, as COVID has generally.”

Osadolor Osawemwenze ’24, who has special circumstance housing accommodations for winter quarter, said he was initially excited about the prospect of meeting other frosh and being on campus. However, he now has a deeper understanding of the implications of returning to campus after considering the risks. 

“I would rather put my freshman experience on hold than put communities and people’s livelihoods at stake,” he said. “And I would hope that Stanford would have similar perspectives.”

In addition to concerns about the safety of the surrounding community, students said they were concerned about the safety of service workers who will be tasked with maintaining dorm and campus cleanliness for the thousands of students returning to campus. 

Olivia Fu ’22, Students for Workers’ Rights member and Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) co-director of community responsibility, said that service workers could be endangered by students’ return if proper precautions are not taken. Subcontracted workers do not have access to testing at Stanford, are not given funds to get tested and are not paid while they are unable to work while waiting for test results, according to Fu. 

With even more students on campus, “there’s an even more heightened risk to their personal health and safety,” Fu said. She said the virus can quickly spread beyond the Stanford community; every subcontracted worker who has tested positive that she’s spoken to has infected their family members. 

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda told The Daily that the University abides by all applicable local, state and federal regulations as well as industry best practices for workplace safety. 

He added that the University conducts “routine safety checks” to ensure that its custodial contractor is “providing its employees with the appropriate level of protective gear.” Contracted firms are also required to notify the University if an employee on campus tests positive, according to Miranda. 

Fu said she believes that Stanford’s decision does not take into account the impact on surrounding communities and goes against the spirit of the county’s efforts. Santa Clara County was one of the first regions in the U.S. to announce a shelter-in-place order in March, and Fu believes the public health officials area has tried to be “on the forefront” of the public health crisis. 

Beyond campus workers, some undergraduates expressed concern that students could be endangered by the return to campus. 

Emilia Dejesus ’23 said that she has already heard students talking about their plans to break campus restrictions and is concerned about the implications for her safety. Despite the rules put into place, she worries that “people might just do whatever they want to do anyway.”

However, Dejesus said that she has hope that students can make a safe return and that plans to bring students back will not have negative consequences “if [Stanford] can do it safely and people actually follow restrictions.”

Marcelo Peña ’23, an international student from Lima, Peru, said that he will not be able to return to campus in the winter because of local COVID restrictions. However, he said that even if he were able to return, he would choose not to because of the safety risks. 

“[The decision] puts a lot of people in a hard position to choose between the fear of missing out on what’s going on on campus, versus, in a lot of cases, their own safety,” he said.

ASSU Undergraduate Senator Gabby Crooks ’23 added that while “a lot of thought went into this decision,” she believes there were “better options,” such as the fall model in which only students approved for special circumstances housing were allowed on campus. 

Other members of the ASSU, including Vo, also expressed reservations about the University’s plans but added that they plan to continue working with Stanford to ensure safety of students and the community. Many encouraged students with concerns to reach out to the ASSU.

Adonis Rubio ’21, ASSU co-director of COVID-19 response said that his team worked to build partnerships with administrators to help inform a safe reopening throughout the summer and fall. 

Rubio’s team is building feedback mechanisms between students and administrators. With frosh and sophomores back on campus — a potential addition of around 3,000 residents — he anticipates a “huge strain” on his team to represent the entirety of students on campus. 

Rubio also encouraged students who are considering returning campus to think about the potential implications of their traveling to the Bay Area. While he wants students to take care of themselves and have an enjoyable experience, he also doesn’t want them to endanger others. 

Echoing Rubio, Elias said students have agency when it comes to winter quarter.

“I think it’s really important for students who are coming back, or deciding to come back, to think about whether or not they need to be back,” Elias said. “I think those are powerful decisions that we can make as students, too.” 

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Malaysia Atwater is a desk editor in the News section. She is a sophomore from Colorado, and she enjoys dancing and re-watching Grey's Anatomy in her free time. Contact her at matwater 'at' stanforddaily.com.
Anna Milstein ’23 is a desk editor for Vol. 259 Academic News and a Staff Writer. Contact her at amilstein ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.