Gettysburg College faced the same challenges as hundreds of other colleges and universities across the country when it reopened for a residential semester in the midst of a pandemic, and – unfortunately – experienced pretty much the same outcomes.
Despite extensive physical spacing, hygiene, testing, contact tracing, and quarantining, the number of cases on the 2,500 student campus spiked only two weeks after the students returned in mid-August.
By September 4 there were over 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus and over 150 students who needed to be quarantined.
The increase was significant enough the college made the decision last Friday to “de-densify” the campus by sending about two-thirds of the students home.
“The virus proved to be very efficient and, as we all know, highly contagious,” said a campus spokesperson.
The students at home will continue their studies virtually, while the students who remain on campus will attend in-person classes.
The 900-member cohort remaining in Gettysburg includes first-year and transfer students, international students, as well as students who are working as resident assistants or student teachers, or who are unable to return home for personal or academic reasons.
Each student was given the opportunity to request to remain on campus and some requests have been approved.
The campus said that reducing the number of students in residence will allow them to test every student more regularly and house all students in single rooms.
Student and Faculty Responses
Many students expressed anger and frustration, and some joined in a rally on the steps of Penn Hall last Sunday to protest the decision.
A common complaint was that the administration did not do enough to stop unapproved parties that began even before classes started. “The school failed to hold people accountable when there were events and parties being reported,” said one student.
“The school could have prevented in person rushes. I know that most of the fraternities and sororities have followed the COVID-19 guidelines, overall, but there are a small number who haven’t, which has ruined things for everyone. I wish the school would have kept the rushes virtual,” said a college sophomore.
“Students are frustrated. It’s a normal reaction to find someone to blame,” said a campus faculty member. “We did everything we could. Mistakes happen in life. All of us including the students worked really hard. I don’t know how we could have done anything differently.”
In addition to frustration, students expressed emotional distress and concern for their academics. “I was devastated about losing another semester,” said one.
“I am more stressed out and lonely, and worried about how my academics would be affected if I was sent home because I did not come to school to solely take part in online classes,” said a sophomore.
“I would have held off a little bit longer to see if anything would’ve gone down. If the tests would’ve continued to come back positive, I would’ve sent everyone home, but not so suddenly. That sudden changed caused so much stress across the campus community,” said another student.
Other students voiced support for the college: “I feel like, at the very least, they should’ve given students more time to go home. But I feel like they made the right decision,” said a campus sophomore.
Some students gave advice to those staying on campus:
- “Follow the COVID-19 guidelines because this is your first year of college and you don’t want it to be ruined. It has already been changed drastically for you and everyone across the country. This is the one chance you have in order to stay on campus this semester. Being on campus is better than being at home. Value this opportunity.”
- “Please follow the regulations set in place. It may not be a big deal if we catch it, but it matters to our families and faculty. Do not host gatherings.”
That the residential semester was so short was not surprising to many in the campus community, particularly those who understood the difficulty of keeping young people from enjoying each other’s company.
“This was something that I think every student that has been at Gettysburg College for more than a year, saw coming,” said a sophomore at the college. “Coming back to campus was going to be difficult and we all knew that.”
An online deadpool created by college students in August asked participants to predict when the campus would force an evacuation. Before it closed last week and awarded a $100 prize to the winning guess, the average prediction was September 18 — a number that seemed early at the beginning of semester but which was exactly two weeks after the evacuation was ordered.