Masks on, St. Olaf

Will we stay in person this year?

When quarantine started last March, it was definitely rough. But it was also new and kind of exciting. People sewed masks, whipped coffee and found quarantine hobbies. Most of us had the energy to be fairly diligent about staying home. After all, the pandemic was only for a couple of months, tops — right? Well, now we’re about seven months into the global crisis, and for a lot of people, quarantining seems to have gotten tiring.

People’s sudden boredom with quarantine is one of the many phenomenons we’ve learned about recently. We’ve also discovered that people can easily have a false sense of security when cases are low. I had to drive through St. George, Utah, last June, and a kid literally asked my mom what was on her face because he’d never seen a surgical mask. Cases were so low there that people didn’t feel the need to socially distance. This really just meant that COVID-19 started to spread extremely easily throughout the city. Eventually, St. George had a huge spike in cases.

These situations demonstrate an essential problem with reopening: if we stop following COVID-19 protocols, either because we’ve gotten tired of them or because we feel safe, and one super spreader comes along, we’re bound to have an outbreak.

This brings us to the question of St. Olaf’s future for the fall semester. Things are going surprisingly well for us right now — we had zero positive cases in last week’s random testing sample! Pessimistically, though, I think things may be going too well.

Students are only going to get less and less determined to follow all of the COVID-19 rules. Yes, the school has better policies than many other colleges, but they’ll obviously only work if people keep caring about them, something that they’re a lot less likely to do when things are looking so good.

I, for one, have already noticed little signifiers, such as how more people walking around my hall have stopped wearing their masks at night — because apparently COVID-19 goes to sleep at eight p.m. This is what makes me think that we could easily still get sent home this semester.

St. Olaf’s bubble is intact for now, but it will only keep working if all 3,000 of us strictly follow the rules. All of us have a web of people that we may be interacting with, from friends at other schools to random people in Northfield, Minn. If we aren’t listening to the policies designed to prevent outbreaks, and just a few of us bring COVID-19 in from some of these people, the bubble is going to pop.

Would the school actually send us home in the case of a serious outbreak? Colleges across the country have had very different responses to this, but it seems likely that we’ll follow the route of Harvard and many other schools, in which everyone but the first years gets sent home. I’m afraid that this will happen eventually. While it’s truly impossible to accurately predict what the rest of 2020 will be like, at this point, I can’t be too optimistic.

Charlotte Smith ’24 is from Boulder, C.O. Her major is