Staff Editorial: WashU’s COVID accommodations are failing students

Correction Appended Below

It’s no secret that restrictions around COVID-19 have drastically changed in the last few months. The most recent CDC guidelines recommend that a person exposed to COVID-19 wear a high-quality mask for ten days instead of quarantining and reduce a previous 10-day isolation period for those who test positive to just five. 

More pertinent, however, is the general sentiment — made possible by the proliferation of vaccines — that the pandemic is “socially over,” meaning most aren’t consciously distancing themselves and taking precautions the way we were in 2020. 

This leaves Washington University in an awkward place. COVID-19 has certainly not disappeared — the

New York Times reported an average of 614 cases per day in St. Louis in the last two weeks. At the same time, students are tired of all the red tape, and more importantly, with the new freshman classes steadily increasing in size, the University is seemingly out of spare housing. 

This leads us to the University’s new COVID-19 policy, which in many ways, is not much of a policy at all. Students who test positive are required to stay in their rooms and not come to campus, but isolation housing is not provided. Students who are COVID-positive are also expected to wear a mask, but not while sleeping. This includes those who live in doubles, with roommates sleeping in beds mere meters away. 

There is no more food delivery or transparent reporting of COVID-19 cases within the community. The policy essentially mirrors CDC guidelines, which aren’t created with college campuses in mind. 

For a freshman in their first weeks of class, this means that a positive test requires them to text brand-new friends for food delivery three times a day, attempt to contact a classmate in each class for the day’s notes (the University is hardly encouraging online participation), and be responsible for exposing a roommate (who they have just met!) to the virus for eight hours every night.

These obstacles don’t create much incentive to test if symptoms appear. If the University is treating COVID-19 like a cold or the flu, why shouldn’t a student do the same? 

The University’s fall plan to manage COVID-19 states that “a limited number” of housing units have been set aside for students who meet very specific criteria. According to a list provided to Residential Advisors, the University has named students with “chronic lung disease, cystic fibrosis, severe asthma, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, heart failure, diabetes, pregnancy, cancer, [an] organ transplant,” or those who are “actively taking immunosuppressive medications,” as among the few who can request to be moved. Students who are not on this list but do not feel comfortable rooming with someone who tests positive will eventually be able to appeal to be moved, but it’s unclear when this process will be implemented or how strictly additional accommodations will be made. 

Upperclassmen, especially those who live off-campus, are better able to accommodate the current COVID-19 policy. With access to a kitchen, a room of one’s own, and a more established social network, these students are likely to be less inconvenienced by a positive test (with the exception of those who are at-risk).

Yet for underclassmen, most of whom are far from home, the University should look to peer institutions to find a comfortable middle ground. Georgetown, for example, says that it delivers meals and other essentials to students isolating on campus. The University of Southern California (USC) offers housing accommodations to “students who are unable to isolate within their home.” Emory University also provides meal pick-up for students on a meal plan who have tested positive, as well as contacts for students who aren’t on a plan but need assistance. 

We understand that WashU, like other universities, is in a difficult spot with limited housing and uncertainty on what the future may hold. However, if the University refuses to make accommodations, the onus falls on students to make them — and it shouldn’t. In the past two academic years, WashU has been able to find non-dorm quarantine housing in the Knight Center and unused fraternity houses. We urge them to consider reinstating this practice, especially for students who share a bedroom. 

Additionally, continuing to provide free tests and some form of meal delivery would increase incentive to test for COVID-19 if symptoms appear. For students who are on-campus, meal delivery assistance could come in many forms: a voucher for a meal delivery service that could take away the stress of acquiring one meal of the day, a place where sick students could pickup GrubHub orders away from the typical dining-hall rush, or even a platform where students can post their room and GrubHub meal number for peers to grab and drop off. 

Most importantly, transparency is key. If the University is tracking cases internally, as they state on the Danforth Campus Plan, then students, faculty, and staff should also be privy to that information. Some public benchmark for the current severity of COVID-19 on-campus is vital in order for students to modify their behavior accordingly, even if using the number of confirmed cases as a metric is flawed.

In the absence of support from the University, we call on the student body to support one another. Upperclassmen, think back to your freshman year. During your first week, if you been required to stay in your room for five days, would you have had a community that you would have felt comfortable calling on to bring you food, water, medication and other necessities? Even if you did, most of us know someone who didn’t. For first years, sophomores, juniors and seniors alike: check in on the people on your floor, on that one person who is out of class because of COVID-19, on that friend who is on day four of isolation, and see if they need anything. If nearly three years of the coronavirus (and its variants) have taught us anything, it’s that when the going gets tough, we have to turn to each other (masked, maybe). 

An earlier version of this article erroneously claimed that there is no more free testing; in fact, free testing is still available, available to those who are symptomatic of and/or exposed to COVID-19. Student Life regrets the error.

Staff editorials reflect the opinion of the majority of our editorial board members. The editorial board operates independently of our newsroom and includes members of the senior staff. 

Reilly Brady, Managing Forum Editor

Jamila Dawkins, Managing Forum Editor

Ved Patel, Managing Chief of Copy

Jared Adelman, Senior Multimedia Editor

Hussein Amuri, Junior Sports Editor

Via Poolos, Managing Scene Editor

Gracie Hime, Chief of Copy

Jasmine Stone, Junior Forum Editor

Holden Hindes, Senior Photo Editor

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