Opinion: Personal Responsibility Won’t Prevent an Outbreak

Is anyone else anxious? 

As the Delta variant spreads, infecting thousands of New Yorkers per week, Hunter College is reopening campus for the fall semester.

Around the halls, purple signs remind students to remain masked and encourage unvaccinated students to practice social distancing in the hallways and in the classroom. The CDC recommends unvaccinated and vaccinated people continue to social distance by at least six feet. 

But during my first three weeks on campus, I took crowded elevators, moved through busy halls, sat in packed classrooms and went home in dense subways. Social distancing as a student is practically impossible because conditions on campus do not allow for it. 

Class sizes, which were already too large pre-pandemic, are too large for students to sit six feet apart from other students in a room. I have tried to scoot my chair back to avoid breathing on someone’s neck, only to be backed into another’s desk. 

In one of my classes, a professor tried to facilitate social distancing by having students sit with an empty chair between them. The class had too many students for every student to skip a chair and even so, one chair is not six feet wide. 

On Twitter, a parent shared a photo of their son’s lecture hall, displaying hundreds of students gathered in person.

According to CUNYfirst, this section of General Chemistry 1 has 827 students enrolled. It is a hybrid course, requiring students to occasionally meet in person for lectures and exams. 

Given that professors cannot ask for students’ medical history, it is unknown which students are unvaccinated and whether they are practicing social distancing. Until Oct. 7, unvaccinated students will have permission to enter the building and attend class if enrolled. 

Another hybrid class, Organic Chemistry 1, has 588 students enrolled. 

Professors have asked students to self-segregate by sitting where there will be only empty chairs around them or in sections reserved for the unvaccinated, such as the center or the back of the room. 

All of these methods are flawed, as they depend on unvaccinated students choosing to self-segregate. Not everyone will. 

We know from the long lines outside the building with students waiting to show their negative COVID-19 test for permission to enter and from CUNY’s vaccination survey that many students are not yet vaccinated. 

The image shows unvaccinated students waiting on a line outside Hunter's West Building.
Students wait in line to show their negative COVID-19 test for permission to enter Hunter’s West Building. Photo by Rachel Zhang.

According to CUNY testing results emailed to students on Sept. 3, 10,070 students had to get tested for permission to enter a CUNY campus.

However, I have yet to see a single student announce they are unvaccinated and commit to sitting apart from others until fully vaccinated.

It is possible that students are pretending to be vaccinated to avoid judgment or isolation in the classroom. After spending over a year in quarantine, students may not want to be excluded from engaging with their peers while in the same room.

Hunter’s reopening plan cannot depend on students making safe choices, as everyone assesses risk differently. Rarely will students decide to police fellow students. 

Consequently, we have classrooms where it is either impossible for students to social distance or students are choosing not to. Students are breathing on top of each other, with nothing but a mask to separate them. 

In many classrooms, the risk of infection is increased by the lack of ventilation systems. 

Ventilation systems help prevent viral particles from building up in the air by replacing the air in the room multiple times per hour. This way, people in the room are less likely to breathe in the virus and become infected. 

According to Hunter PSC, the college’s labor union, many rooms have solely open windows or no windows at all

It is dangerous to solely rely on windows for ventilation because outside air cannot replace indoor air quickly or consistently enough. The airflow fluctuates according to weather conditions. 

In such an environment, preventing the spread cannot be left up to students. Contrary to the cute purple signs encouraging students to be responsible, one cannot make safe choices while forced to take classes in an unsafe environment. If we cannot rely on personal responsibility to end the pandemic nationally, we cannot rely on it to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak locally. 

A wall in one of the halls at Hunter College is nearly covered in purple posters with Hunter's COVID-19 safety guidelines. One poster asks for all individuals to wear a mask indoors. Another poster displays distinct recommendations for unvaccinated people and unvaccinated people. A third poster encourages students to use hand sanitizer regularly, underneath a sanitizer dispenser. A fourth poster notes that mechanical ventilation systems are present in the hall.
A wall of posters with Hunter’s COVID-19 safety guidelines. Photo by Rachel Zhang.

As the virus continues to spread, the Hunter administration must take responsibility for preventing the spread on campus instead of shifting the burden onto its students and faculty. 

According to a graph provided by Hunter PSC, Hunter has the lowest percentage of classes held online out of all CUNY campuses, despite serving more than 23,000 students. Over 60% of classes at Hunter require meeting in person, therefore increasing the likelihood of crowding and transmission on campus. 

More classes should be offered remotely. Faculty members should have the freedom to decide whether to hold classes remotely, as members of Hunter PSC are demanding

To prevent the mixing of unvaccinated and vaccinated students on campus, classes should not be held in person until every student attending is confirmed to be vaccinated. 

No in-person class should be the same size as it was pre-pandemic, especially not lecture halls with over 800 students. All students should have the ability to practice social distancing as the Delta variant infects more vaccinated people and children around them who cannot get vaccinated. 

Classes should not be held in rooms that lack ventilation systems.

To continue packing unvaccinated and vaccinated students in classrooms with poor ventilation and hosting large campus events during a pandemic places students and those who live with us at risk. 

Like most students, I return home to my family after attending classes in person. I live with a sibling who’s immunocompromised and too young to get the vaccine. I cannot afford to get sick and bring the virus home with me. Nor do I have the option to take off the semester, thus sacrificing my scholarship and seeing it converted to a loan. I am pursuing my education while bearing risks to myself and my loved one’s safety. 

I know that I am not alone. There are students, faculty and staff who live with elders, children and immunocompromised loved ones or are immunocompromised themselves. Students who are being forced to weigh protecting their health against continuing their education. Faculty who must weigh protecting their health against continuing to teach. 

Hunter’s reopening plan should not leave us to shoulder its burdens. 

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