Opinion: The Unrealistic Expectations of ‘Better Together’
By Laura Winters, contributing writer
Gettysburg College’s “Better Together” plan implied that it was within the student body’s ability to contain COVID-19 and prevent it from affecting the college community. The Health Agreement designed to uphold this plan stated that it was “within our collective power to make this semester work.” This rhetoric established unachievable expectations because it placed the entire continuation of the college’s in-person experience on the actions of students alone.
In June, psychology professor Laurence Steinberg from Temple University wrote a New York Times article and explained that fall return plans were “so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional” given what is known about the virus: it is highly contagious and spreads communally through most forms of human interaction. In the Town Hall meeting on Aug. 30, the administration criticized students for failing to uphold public health guidelines and rules based upon the increase in positive test results. Blame was placed on specific groups of students who had been infected, while the nature of the pandemic itself was disregarded.
The pandemic is a global crisis that has caused the shutdown of schools at every level across the country. No institution has been able to contain the virus in a way that replicates a pre-pandemic, in-person experience. President Iuliano acknowledged that “our experience is not unique. Other colleges and universities are seeing circumstances similar to ours.” He then expressed that “we’re not other colleges, we’re Gettysburg College.” Gettysburg is indeed an exceptional place, but maintaining this notion of exceptionalism in the face of a rampant pandemic puts students in an untenable position.
It was also stated in the Town Hall that wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding gatherings could prevent the spread of the virus. The administration believes “the requirements that we need to undertake are not that difficult to do.” This is true. The individual acts of mask wearing and washing hands are simple. However, the total alteration of daily habits and routines is difficult to consistently maintain. These guidelines would have to be adhered to without human error in order to prevent the spread, and that expectation is unrealistic. It is also important to acknowledge the possibility that even if every student and faculty member followed these guidelines perfectly, the virus could still spread.
Prior to the current shutdown, students were gathering in public spaces and utilizing campus facilities. Students who live off-campus or in the Gettysburg Hotel may have interacted with people in town or gone to restaurants and stores. Students also interact with college faculty and staff who have their own lives outside of campus. No matter how careful the college community was, numerous interactions between Gettysburg students and surrounding communities still occurred. Due to these unknown factors, it was not fully within our power to eliminate the virus from Gettysburg.
Students are responsible for upholding health guidelines to the best of their ability. However, it is impossible for every individual to be consistent with these efforts at all times. When someone tests positive, many assume it is due to misconduct or carelessness. Sick individuals and organizations have been blamed and shamed by their peers on social media. Despite the extent of personal precautions, we are all at some risk of contracting the virus. When in the wrong place at the wrong time, we are all susceptible to COVID-19.
It is important to be considerate of the fear and anxiety one may experience from having a serious illness, regardless of how they become sick. Students should acknowledge their shared hardships and support each other during these unprecedented times. Let’s demonstrate the true spirit of Gettysburg Great by denouncing COVID shaming and treating each other with compassion, empathy, and care.