How can Macalester’s Covid policies prioritize student needs?


Graphic by Katherine Irving ’22.

Uditi Chandrashekhar and Julia Bintz

Over this semester there have been multiple incidents that remind us that we are still in a pandemic, no matter how much things seem to have changed since March 2020. There is a renewed sense of uncertainty because of the Omicron variant. 

In my personal circles, a lot of the conversations center on the variant’s implications on travel. As plans are changing at the last minute, it is very heartening to see that there is flexibility and support for students who need housing between Dec. 18, 2021 and Jan. 3, 2022. However, this flexibility was only made available on Nov. 9, even though the first set of information about J-term housing came out on Oct. 12. I acknowledge that Residential Life’s work is challenging. However, I also think that for every student who needs help with accommodation before J-term, it is important to at least mention that some help and options will be provided earlier in October as well. As an international student I know that most of the time we are able to figure out plans with the help of departments on campus but it can be distressing when it feels like the college just won’t support any housing needs before J-term.

There are added challenges for international students because of the necessity to consider travel bans. What happens if a student goes home and isn’t able to return because of COVID? There are options to help students but if someone has to take remote classes long-term, many students aren’t certain that Macalester has a plan. Plus, taking 4 classes in a different timezone will truly be a challenge. I am not saying we must assume the worst, but we should at least plan for it.

A lot about COVID-19 and policies around it is unpredictable. I was only able to highlight some considerations to keep in mind on how we reflect on past policies and envision COVID policies going forward. Some other aspects in conversations were inclusion of questions directly related to COVID in course surveys, thinking about Cafe Mac and seating arrangements (Sar Velick ‘23), and designing student leadership programs (Dipakshi Sarma ‘24). The main takeaway is that we must stay grounded in knowing that we are still in a pandemic and continue to put in work to reflect and support all student needs.

Macalester can prioritize student needs by making COVID-19 policies easy to follow in practice, cohesive, and open to student input.

The most glaring issue I faced with COVID-19 policies last year was how contradictory the pod rule was. Last year, the college allowed students to form “pods” of people who could be in close contact with each other. I assume the college wanted to provide a sample method for how students could have friends while mitigating COVID-19’s spread on campus, which makes sense and is reasonable. The policy itself, however, did not make sense in practice. While the college encouraged students to have a closed group of close contacts, there weren’t any actual adjustments to the rules that allowed for someone to become close with their pod.

The pod rule, as it was written, stood in isolation from other COVID policies. It existed but wasn’t a reasonable exception to other rules. Technically, you could eat with your pod in Café Mac and stand closer than six feet to them with a mask on. But that wasn’t a strong basis for an actual closed group of friends to form or function. People were already adjusting their habits to have a single closed group of friends, so they wanted permission to connect with people while respecting public health needs. If the school was going to have a pod rule, it should’ve also had flexibility in other rules that would’ve allowed people to hang out in a dorm room together without getting probation.

Instead, the school claimed students could have a pod but still enforced that students needed to always have masks on and follow strict room capacities. Again, this is understandable, but it’s extremely confusing when you’re a student being told by the school that you can have a closed group of friends but also must only have one other person in your room, six feet away and masked. It doesn’t reflect how people go about life.

Also, it was difficult to voice opinions to the school about how the policy played out throughout the year.  There wasn’t an opportunity, as there is now with deciding who the Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will be, about policies that determined campus life. 

Going forward, the school should question the impact of COVID-19 policies and if their policies are contradictory, confusing or lack flexibility in practice. Macalester should also have a clear path for students to help the school find issues in their policies and create remedies. The school and students are both capable of figuring out how to balance public health and personal needs. So, COVID-19 policies should trust the judgment of the people making and following them by being comprehensive.

*Dipakshi Sarma ‘24 is an Associate Features editor at The Mac Weekly