The moment the Outlook icon emerged on my iPhone screen this afternoon, I had a gut feeling about what I was in for. In the recent weeks, as Omicron cases have risen dangerously, it has become more and more difficult for me to stay present. What if, I keep asking myself, what if … ? In the past few days, however, as peer universities like Cornell reported nearly 1,000 cases among vaccinated students within one week, these questions have made their way into my conversations with my new Stanford friends. As a freshman just off a gap year, my first and only quarter at Stanford so far had a slight fever dream-like quality to it. On some blisteringly blue-skied days, I would stop pedaling, slide off my bike and take a moment to gaze at the scenic campus around me, my friends laughing around me, the upperclassmen lounging on the Oval evidently so content and relieved to be back in person. How did I get this lucky?
Now it is Dec. 16, 2021. Our fully in-person fall quarter ended six days ago. Today all my peers and I received an email that the first two weeks of winter quarter will commence online.
Exactly one year and nine months ago, my iPhone screen lit up with another Outlook notification. It was the head of my high school, alerting us that classes would remain online for the first two weeks of school following spring break. Our school administrators affirmed that we would return to an in-person senior spring, but that the school would need to remain on guard.
Little did I know that I had already physically spent my last day at high school.
Exactly one year and nine months ago, Stanford moved classes online for the last two weeks of winter quarter. Days later, the administration announced that all classes would be online during spring quarter, sending over 7,000 undergrads home.
And so, I am sitting here in a post-finals, trying-to-relax trance, tempting our student body’s collective fate with more what if questions, waves of déjà-vu inundating me. But perhaps doom is not necessarily coming our way. I am cautiously hopeful about how next quarter will play out. As Stanford administrators have been reporting, our weekly case numbers have consistently remained at a sufficiently low rate. Now that fall quarter has been capped, it is safe to say that administrators successfully managed emerging COVID-19 cases and post-break spikes.
Thus, this decision to transition online for the early part of winter quarter is not a response to case numbers, which stands in our favor. Nor is it a response to an official order from Santa Clara County, which issued such an order in 2020, giving me hope that the county may not mandate university closures. Both these facts make me more confident that Stanford is only taking precautionary measures in order to prevent future crises rather than actively addressing a current crisis.
Moreover, the update made it clear that undergraduates are still welcome to keep their travel arrangements in place and return to campus in two weeks, on the University’s scheduled Jan. 1 reopening date. The Stanford administration is also working hard to put in new supportive structures that would prevent massive campus spikes. Not only are students being asked to get a COVID-19 test pre- and post-travel, but they are also required to get the booster before Jan. 31. The University-wide email asserted that all these decisions are being made now so as to “minimize disruptions” to course scheduling and allow for adequate quarantine time for students who do test positive upon arrival, thereby perhaps trying to create a more level playing field amongst all students and professors returning to campus from all over the world.
Do I want to believe that in 33 days, as opposed to 17, I will be sitting in my new IntroSem, able to connect with a different set of peers as I continue the process of adjusting to life within the Stanford bubble? Yes. Can I? That’s a slightly different question. All I know is that the next few weeks are not in my hands, nor in the hands of the Stanford administration. My winter quarter, and possibly the rest of my freshman year, are in the hands of the Omicron variant. I can resign myself to the fact that I have no control over the situation and can do nothing but watch and wait in a state of paranoia. But I want to think more critically about our current national and global responses to significant rises in COVID cases.
I believe that many college-aged students are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the notion of putting their lives on hold and living in constant fear of the unpredictable. Quite frankly, I don’t know how many more times we can experience this level of déjà-vu without feeling utterly overwhelmed by what feels like a perpetual, cyclic pattern of panic.
But until we can find a cure for COVID-19, perhaps some level of panic is inevitable. Many of us have different, albeit overlapping, fears regarding catching COVID-19, as well as different ways of expressing this panic. Perhaps more than the fear of becoming ill with COVID-19, many college-aged individuals are concerned about the severity of government and institutional responses to COVID-19. Many young people are experiencing what I will refer to as “Virus Response Fatigue.” Whether COVID-19 continues to mutate is currently out of our control on a global level. What is within our control is how governments respond to the virus and how much disruption we choose to initiate. Given that recent research has found that Omicron, while more resistant to our current vaccines, causes less severe symptoms, many young people are not as concerned about their own health as they are those of older or immunocompromised individuals around them. For some college students, their main fear is often tied to the possible disruption that a positive test result would cause: quarantine, online classes, being unable to board a flight to or from home or school, and the potential impacts of solitary confinement on mental health. Therefore, as Stanford considers next steps for winter quarter, the administration should take these perspectives into consideration in order to foster the most nurturing, safe and healthy — in every sense of the word — environment for all students, in addition to faculty and staff.
Many young, vaccinated individuals with whom I have spoken express their frustration at those who choose to remain unvaccinated around the country despite access to safe vaccines and without medical or religious inhibitions. “Choosing to get vaccinated,” one of my peers articulated, “is not just a choice to protect yourself, but also to protect those around you.” However, Cornell’s recent spike in cases reveals that having a COVID-19 vaccine may not be the final answer to remaining virus-free. A future-focused question I’ve begun to hear a lot of lately is “if neither vaccines nor boosters prove effective, what’s next?” Herd immunity? Total lockdown? It is difficult to say. In the meantime, I believe it is necessary to thoughtfully listen to and engage with the perspectives presented at all levels and from individuals of all backgrounds. Such behavior is essential to preventing individuals from feeling alienated and to avoid widening the already-apparent generational divide.
And as easy as it would be for me to tell myself that my first quarter was, in fact, a fever dream and that the feelings of luck and thrill I experienced this past fall were nothing but illusions, I do have a lot to be grateful for. We all do. Now let’s just keep our fingers crossed.