On the first and last day of my in-person discussion section, I filed into the classroom behind the other 10 or so students and sat down at a socially-distanced desk without a second thought. As the TA in the section before mine left, she mentioned having a fairly full class just before and suggested we wipe down our desks again. I looked around at my masked peers, some of whom sanitized their hands a second time, and waited for our TA to arrive.
Surface transmission of the coronavirus is practically nil, yet we find ourselves surrounded by those who behave otherwise, such as wiping down desks and seats before and after every use. Still, there are others who believe wearing a mask outdoors is unnecessary, but continue to go to restaurants and bars because of increased hygiene measures.
Right now, all of our decisions pose some form of risk, yet with no uniform COVID-19 risk measures across the campus, city and state individuals are forced to calculate every decision based on feelings of comfort, rather than hard science.
On campus, many of my friends and I differ on matters such as testing frequency, indoor versus outdoor gatherings and mask-wearing. Some are uncomfortable eating at restaurants, but have no issue hosting several of their closest friends in their own apartment. Others get tested weekly, but don’t isolate before or after the result waiting period.
Truth be told, we’re all a bit hypocritical in our risk assessments but with a confusing approach on campus and in the city of Madison, this is unsurprising. I can’t go to a library with a mask on to study for my midterm, but I can bring my laptop to Valentia on East Campus Mall and sit inside.
The point is, how can we as students accurately assess and respond to risk on campus in a way that makes sense and reduces caseload in our community? The answer is inconvenient, but the more we prioritize responses that actually mitigate risk, the better our chances are at a truly hybrid spring semester, for one.
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First, we need to cut down on the hygiene theater. More energy should be spent on enforcing campus-wide mask wearing than ensuring that the tables at College Library are deep-cleaned when eating and drinking aren’t even allowed within the building — even a water bottle on the table can merit a scolding. Instead, hand out free masks on campus to students who stroll through East Campus Mall without one. Considering that surface transmission is not considered to be one of the main contributors to the virus’s spread, campus efforts to reduce cases should reflect this.
Second, we need to stop thinking about risk with an all-or-nothing approach. We tend to justify our exposure to risk based on past exposure, such as seeing our friends without masks once, and therefore continuing to see them without masks from that point on. This thinking will only help the virus spread in the long run as we become more passive in dealing with the pandemic.
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For example, if I go to the gym Monday, perhaps I should reconsider indoor dining Tuesday, instead of thinking “I’m already exposed everywhere anyway.” So long as we want to do more “normal” activities during the pandemic, we should strive to “trade some activities for others” to avoid taking on too much risk at once.
For college students, discussing this with roommates and friends helps pinpoint what steps are actually precautions, and what is simply being done for the feeling of safety and comfort. For instance, getting tested three days before you plan to hang out with someone but going out in the meantime doesn’t really make much sense. But communicating this out loud and following research-based guidelines do. Other than that, it is abundantly clear the only people looking out for us students are ourselves.
Anne Isman ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying economics.