What can the University’s Covid-Campus tell us about punitive systems and public health?

Helen Lauterbach, Contributing Writer

Some have described the past months of quarantine as a cultural reset. With our lives shaken up by the novelty and intensity of a global pandemic and all that goes with it, ongoing conversations have touched on realities that have been actively concealed to the consciousness of society, or at least to the mainstream media. Namely among these are the widespread normalization of anti-Black racism and white supremacy. Expansive, powerful concepts like an understanding and performance of race have been subject to change, but so have others like that of the typical work-day, or the role of social media.

While there has not been real change — at least not in the earned, heavily realized or systemic sense of the term — the uninvited and severe change brought on by the pandemic to economies, industries, communities, families and social standards have inevitably created a new cultural space. There, the mainstream culture is simply different, and what makes sense to feel and communicate as individuals is a little different too.

So, coming to campus these last two semesters, a cultural “new normal” was the expectation. No one would expect anything less — at least not coming from a place where one may have spent 12 hours a day with their parents, sharing both workspaces and the intimately emotional rollercoaster of a burgeoning global pandemic. Student life would be inevitably different with limited social gatherings and activities and classes gone virtual; but there were also notable policy-changes that speak to the particular influence of this pandemic. In order to prioritize safety and the interest of the administration to remain on-campus, there may have been a slight departure from a traditional, punitive implementation of community guidelines.

Anyone who came to campus this semester had to sign a community agreement — not a form you sign with all the others you don’t read, but a serious list of community guidelines emailed directly to all students, along with information about pre-arrival COVID-19 testing kits. Almost as important as getting tested for COVID-19 is the commitment from all students to, essentially, act with COVID-common sense. This kind of agreement has its own significance in a global pandemic: concern for community safety is inevitably tied to both one’s own well-being, and access to the desirable lifestyle associated with a college campus. 

The reality is that our campus is privileged to be more lenient in terms of COVID-19 restrictions than many of the communities students are coming from. Evidence of that enough is the fact that the University is a community with the resources to bring students on-campus in the spirit of an educational experience amidst a devastating global pandemic. Here, we are all regularly tested, have access to an excess of isolation housing and are required healthcare. And while there is likely a range of rule-following diligence among students, it is common to see friend groups meeting non-socially distanced on campus, or to hear of a small party on the weekend only more or less within a social bubble. Multiple times last semester and already this semester, campus has had to amp up restrictions in light of increased positive COVID-19 cases and use of isolation housing. 

People have definitely broken the community agreement guidelines, but I don’t get the feeling that this has led to individuals facing serious consequences. Besides, how could the campus identify the exact sources, students involved or rules broken leading to a COVID-19 outbreak? What they do do is contact trace, making sure anyone involved makes it to isolation housing and doesn’t exacerbate the public health problem. Public Safety vehicles visibly patrol the campus on weekends and nights but do not visibly get involved with the groups of students clearly walking to social gatherings — as far as I can tell. University President John Bravman closed a recent email to the campus updating COVID-19 guidelines with: 

“Last semester we set the bar high, and though it may not have seemed so at the time, we cleared it easily — together. Now, in the early part of the spring semester, we’re all the same people, the foe is better known, and we have deployed even more resources dedicated to your safety and success”. (2/19/21)

His many other emails have struck a similar tone. 

Apart from campus-wide COVID-19 rules, class structures may have become less punitive. I have noticed that almost every professor I have has been more accommodating, willingly making deadlines flexible and asking for student communication about needs. In this way, the relationship between mental health and college courses, as well as how home-life affects all of these, is more socially acceptable to talk about in college classes, and are even integrated into professors’ policies. 

For better or for worse, it seems that both the COVID-19 guidelines and other institutional policies may have become less about individual compliance and more about consideration of the community in one’s individual actions. There seems to be a less punitive dynamic between students and rules overall, interestingly, at a time when adherence to the rules would seem more important than ever. This has included the institutionalized consideration of students’ mental health — an inherently equalizing consideration — and the implementation of the more straight-forward rules necessary to manage the spread of COVID-19 for the entire campus community and the surrounding area. Because every member of the community is equally important to remaining on campus, the concept of punitive action is seemingly less relevant to realistically achieving the administration’s goals for our community. For example, while mental health may have been a significant factor for rule compliance in the past — like as it relates to individuals’ academic success and their stable judgement — the pandemic has made this significant factor more visible within our culture, and therefore more manageable as a community overall. Because it is assumed that students will be mentally affected by the pandemic, rather than force them to live up to the same academic standards and maintain a status quo that no longer exists, professors encourage students to be accepting and communicative of when they will not be able to make dates and deadlines due to their mental health. What’s most interesting is that mental health has always been theorized as a valid reason to miss deadlines, but has not been in practice. In this way, a prioritization of public health over rule-following may actually be the most reasonable way to implement the goals of those rules. 

Recently, I have read arguments for the value of shifting from a punitive perspective to a public health perspective when we want social change — for example, viewing widespread sexual assault or mass incarceration as public health problems rather than the collection of many individuals’ failures. Doing so recognizes the role of privilege and systems in determining outcomes for individuals and groups, and in general embodies a view of the world based on communities rather than individuals — all to the end of minimizing those realities we view as socially undesirable, like violent crime. There are community-level problems that affect some individuals more than others in an institutional setting, one being mental health; so when an institution must act as a homogenous community it also acts to equalize these discrepancies. Influenced by the demands of the pandemic rather than deliberate, realized policy-change, the University’s COVID-campus may serve as a loose example of the relevance of the public health perspective to addressing community outcomes.

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