As the second year of COVID-19 comes to a close, many students believe that the College has handled the crisis well, though over 75 percent of students report their education has suffered as a result of the pandemic. While students generally agree with the vaccine and booster mandate, support for masking and testing policies are split, showing a student body divided over a full return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
A survey was distributed to students using the all_students email list. Of the student body, 579 completed the survey. The following results exclude questions deemed confusing and those regarding policies that changed while the survey was active. While staff and faculty were also sent the survey, there were not enough responses from those groups to warrant presentation of the data.
The survey asked students to respond to different aspects of the College’s approach to the pandemic and to statements inspired by President Clayton Rose’s January 10 email to the College community. Rose stated that COVID-19 protocols on campus will be designed in a way that accepts the presence of the virus in the foreseeable future.
Vaccines, Testing and Masking
Over three quarters of respondents agree or strongly agree with the statement, “Bowdoin’s vaccine and booster mandate is a necessary step for our community’s health.” However, some are growing tired of the restrictions.
“You make all of us take a vaccine and a booster, yet we as students reap none of the benefits,” a student from the Class of 2023 wrote. “If we are a community who is low at risk and is protected best against the virus, then treat us like we are.”
A majority of student opinions suggest that campus should operate as a low-risk community. Almost 60 percent of respondents think that Bowdoin should stop doing everything in its power to keep cases as low as possible, and just over 75 percent approve of unmasked indoor extracurricular events.
“While the College must continue to preserve the health of students and staff, it must be realistic,” a student from the Class of 2024 wrote. “Some restrictions remain almost unreasonably strict, while common sense measures like rigorous contract tracing or isolation are thrown by the wayside.”
Despite a desire to hold more events, students are still vigilant about testing: 73 percent stated they would stop their normal activities and take an observed antigen test if they experienced mild COVID-19-like symptoms. Furthermore, only 11 percent of students reported intentionally skipping a mandated COVID-19 test.
Nonetheless, some students’ patience with the bi-weekly testing protocol is wearing thin.
“The twice a week testing is more of a hassle for students than it is helpful. Our numbers are very low, and the tests are redundant and annoying,” a student from the Class of 2025 wrote. “They force us to wake up earlier, miss meals or rush to Farley in order to stand in long lines.”
Concerning masking protocols, there is overwhelming support to allow professors to require masking in the classroom at their own discretion.
“The college’s response has been impressive and robust,” a student from the Class of 2022 wrote. “However more agency should be given to professors to make mask/COVID restriction-related decisions on a case by case basis. Students are kind and smart and will respect whatever their professors ask.”
Around campus, a majority of students agree that masking should be required when faculty and staff are present, but do not agree with masking when faculty and staff are not present.
Students seem to accept that COVID-19 will be a part of community health discussions for a long time. After reading that Rose believes COVID-19 will become an endemic illness, 64 percent of students agreed, with only 14 percent disagreeing.
“COVID-19 will become endemic,” a student from the Class of 2022 wrote. “Bowdoin needs to figure out how to move along with normal life as masking should not and cannot be the new norm.”
However, 62 percent of respondents worry about contracting COVID-19 on campus, and about 30 percent of the student body already have.
“When I got COVID-19, I felt relatively normal for the first two weeks, but my health significantly declined afterwards. I was sick for over seven months,” a student from the Class of 2024 wrote. “I was constantly in pain, struggled to eat, and felt half-asleep. After jogging for only a few minutes, my lungs burn so much that I have to stop despite running five miles per day before I got [COVID-19]. I don’t care what Bowdoin says about not requiring masks or how ‘mild’ [COVID-19] is for college students. I don’t want to go through that again, and I don’t want my friends to either.”
Despite the risk of contracting COVID-19, 46 percent of the students believe that temporary online classes are an acceptable solution amidst a COVID-19 outbreak on campus. 41 percent of the student body disagrees, making this a highly polarized issue.
The polarization persists as 38 percent of students believe that Bowdoin’s COVID-19 approach is focused on student health, while 39 percent disagree.
“In the fall of 2021, Bowdoin failed to respond adequately to the likelihood of breakthrough infections, and didn’t provide proper guidance for close contacts,” a student from the Class of 2023 wrote. “This is the first semester since the beginning of COVID-19 that it seems that Bowdoin has properly consulted with experts and prioritized the holistic health of all students.”
The College’s new isolation protocol of keeping asymptomatic students in their rooms with their COVID-negative roommates also received mixed opinions: 34 percent of students approve of the policy while 45 percent disapprove.
“The lack of isolation housing is a major misstep in the College’s plan,” a student from the Class of 2024 wrote. “The College is not taking steps to limit transmission to roommates, which I feel is morally wrong. If a student is in a single, it makes sense for them to stay put, but the College must have a more actionable plan for people with roommates.”
A Focus on Mental Health
While the survey included no references to mental health, many students noted that funds that support testing should be rerouted to support mental health services on campus.
“While the precautions taken have certainly kept this community safe, the repeated cancellations/delays of various events, conflicts with learning environments and the clear prioritization of COVID-19 over the community’s mental health has to end,” a student from the Class of 2025 wrote. “I believe we could benefit more from reallocating much of the COVID-19 testing funds to offering better access to mental health services on campus, such as hiring more counselors and increasing the frequency and variety of wellness events.”
Students also noted that the College’s focus on physical health should further emphasize the importance of mental health to students’ well-being.
“Bowdoin does not care about student’s health because health is not just protecting against the pandemic,” a student from the Class of 2022 wrote. “It is mental health and social health and emotional health, too.”
Anger over the impact of the College’s approach to COVID-19 on student mental health seems to be increasing. Some say that the pandemic made it worse.
“Bowdoin failed to take into account how COVID[-19] would impact students’ mental health,” a student from the Class of 2022 wrote. “[It has created] a campus culture that is extremely toxic to mental and emotional well-being.”
Seamus Frey, Diego Lasarte, Emma Sorkin and Ayub Tahlil contributed to this article.