Students share their concerns about returning to campus

Two cases of the highly contagious COVID-19 strain first found in the UK have recently been detected in Saratoga Springs, a mere 30-minute drive from Troy, posing risks to students returning to Troy for the Spring semester. Since August 1, 92 positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported within the Rensselaer community. Some students shared their concerns about returning to campus and opinions on Rensselaer’s policies with The Polytechnic as students prepare to return to campus for the Spring semester.

For Class of ’24 Vice President Ria Massoni, going back is a must. Besides being expected on campus as a freshman, her coursework as a Computational Biology major includes in-person labs. She looks forward to seeing her friends again, but she also worries about being exposed to so many people traveling to campus from all over the country and the world at once. Parents who assist with the spring semester move-in are not required to be tested in advance. “That is a large concern because they’ve been traveling and we really just don’t know where they’ve been or who they’ve been in contact with, and so contact tracing is almost impossible,” says Massoni. Although she admits it will be safer at home with few risks of exposure, she is comforted enough by RPI’s frequent testing to engage in some interactions.

Kriti Sharma ’25 doesn’t think being on campus is worth the risk, and wishes to study remotely this semester. “The main reason I applied [to be] remote was because cases are surging, and especially in Rensselaer county, I think it’s… the highest it’s ever been, so it’s really unsettling to go back,” she says. She is frustrated that she has still not received a response to her remote request. Sharma thinks that student compliance to COVID-19 policies was a concern last semester as students were driven to less regulated meeting places such as each other’s dorm rooms as a result of common spaces being closed off from students. If more of these common spaces could be opened where students could remain distanced, she believes they would have a safer means to congregate.

RPI is expecting to house both freshmen and sophomores on campus this spring, resulting in almost twice the density in dorms and dining halls. Having seen how students congregated on campus last Fall, Sharma says “having almost double the amount of people from last semester is going to be completely different. I remember going to buildings… and it was already super crowded, so thinking about that doubling is really hard to imagine.” Massoni also thinks that the difficulty in getting dining hall reservations will increase with both freshmen and sophomores on campus. Holub agrees, stating that “with more people on campus, I expect all of the problems will just be exacerbated rather than fixed.”

Class of ’23 President Harshil Patel feels obligated to return to campus as a member of student government, even though all his classes are online. He says returning will be “a much needed mental break for sophomores, especially to escape their home setting to study now at RPI and be exposed to a new environment.” But, he does think the Institute will face logistical challenges in accommodating more students on campus. Patel is one of many students who will be living in Hudson Valley College Suites—three miles away from campus—without a car, and will have to take the shuttle to campus. The shuttles to and from HVCC will be more frequent than last semester to accommodate the increased number of students, decreasing wait time from a half hour to 15 minutes, according to Director of Transportation and Dining Services Mike Ramella during a Q&A session on January 13. Still, shuttling to and from HVCC will take time and a degree of freedom out of these student’s schedules. Shuttles will run from 7 am to 11 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 8 pm on weekends.

Jack Zhu ’21 feels “a little uneasy” about returning to campus. While he wants to see his friends again for his last semester at RPI, he’s worried about all the people flying in through airports. As a student living off campus with his own car, he’s not particularly worried about traveling back to campus, but he’ll be living with people who are flying in from across the country.

Bethany Holub ’21 is also looking forward to being back for her final semester and feels like she and her friends need their “last hoorah before graduation and entering the real world.” She is “cautiously optimistic” that she will be safer in Troy than at home. While she will be interacting with more people, especially on her capstone project, she will also be tested more. As a learning assistant, Holub would normally live in the residence halls, but decided against it due to both the increased density of students on campus and because her interactions with students are mostly virtual.

The Institute has delayed the start of the semester by a week, citing the increasing cases in the Capital Region. For some students moving back to campus, this has upset their plans. Massoni says her parents had planned to take time off from work to bring her to Troy, but have had to adjust their plans since, and Sharma thinks “RPI should have told us [about the extension of Winter Break] way earlier.”

While Zhu says he is not much affected by the delayed start, as a senior living off campus and driving himself to Troy, he is concerned at the lack of breaks over spring semester. He thinks it would be a good idea if RPI inserted a few three-day weekends to preserve the mental health of some students. The delayed start has also cut the number of reading days before finals from five down to two. As a Learning Assistant, Holub says that the reduced number of reading days “will significantly impact the students, in addition to the lack of a Spring break. This semester will mentally be draining everyone and continuing to consolidate it by removing breaks is counterproductive.”

As a result of the increased density, the mandated bathroom ratio of two students per bathroom is being relaxed for on-campus housing but not for off-campus housing. Zhu doesn’t think the 2:1 bathroom ratio is reasonable for off-campus students as it is “at minimum, an inconvenience for people who already have arrangements that exceed this density and thus must find new housing, and at most, a financially reckless and insensitive decision made with very little real return in terms of safety from COVID-19,” which he thinks is to force students into RPI housing. Holub and Massoni describe this decision as a “money grab.” All five students feel that it is unfair for off-campus students to be required to stick to this rule when on-campus students will not be held to the same standard.

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are being made available, some colleges are planning to provide vaccines to their communities. While RPI has not announced plans to distribute the vaccine when New York State reaches the applicable groups, the student health portal states that “Rensselaer may require immunizations beyond those required by law (e.g., seasonal flu shot, COVID-19 vaccine) if and when available.” All of the students interviewed for this article agree that they would want to be vaccinated and would feel safer if the Institute provided vaccines to its community. Holub suggests this would even justify increasing on-campus density. Patel remarks that “people should be encouraged to take the vaccine,” and Zhu “absolutely [supports] a mandatory vaccination” for students living on campus. While Massoni would be happy if RPI provided the vaccination, she thinks “it’s a large decision to impose on students, because while I personally may be okay getting the vaccine… other people might not, given that the vaccine is so new and there haven’t been enough studies on what the effects of it are later down the line.” She also thinks it is unreasonable for the Institute to require the vaccine if they do not provide it to students. Sharma agrees, saying that it has already been difficult for some students to obtain the mandatory negative COVID-19 tests prior to coming to campus; one student she knows has to pay $80 out of pocket to get a test, as COVID-19 testing is not covered by their insurance.

The most common suggestion these students had for how to improve their return to campus was better communication. While RPI has hosted Q&A sessions about their plans for Spring, Massoni says these are simply not enough, and that “the best thing [administrators] could do is honestly just communicate… so that [students] don’t have to pose these questions themselves, when they are things that students don’t even really know they should be asking.” Holub would also like to know more of the reasoning behind decisions such as why students are required to quarantine for a full 14 days when the current CDC guidelines only say 10 days or seven with a negative test. Without knowing the reasons, she says “it feels like the school is just changing the rules to suit their needs rather than the needs of the students.”