by Grant Gebetsberger, Sharif Hamidi and Sarah Wiener
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tufts has made the decision to conduct an entirely virtual Senior Week and an entirely virtual university-wide commencement on May 23. While these decisions are obviously understandable, the university’s decision to end COVID-19 surveillance testing and remove seniors from on-campus housing over a week before the May 23 commencement date is not. Its decision seems to be informed by the belief that seniors will act without regard for public health; just as students have been asked to consider community health in their decision-making, the university’s senior leadership must be held to the same standard.
In the absence of an official survey from the university regarding seniors’ plans for commencement, the senior members of TCU Senate responsible for this article conducted one ourselves. Over a third of the entire senior class completed the survey and their responses should be a great cause for alarm to the university.
There are three main reasons that this decision is inequitable, reckless and poses a threat to our host communities: the disproportionate number of financial aid recipients living in on-campus housing, overwhelming majority of graduating seniors who plan to stay in the area regardless of Tufts’ decision and emotional importance of celebrating the successful completion of an unconventional undergraduate experience.
The decision to not house or test seniors between the end of finals and commencement disproportionately impacts first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students who live on campus. Given the increased shares of financial aid-receiving students and students of color who live on campus, the decision to close on-campus housing while off-campus students are able to stay in the area is hypocritical and contradicts the university’s stated commitments of anti-racism, equity and inclusion.
Moreover, the university’s claim that ending COVID-19 testing and closing on-campus housing is necessary to protect public health is simply untrue. The majority of seniors already live off campus and are able to stay in their houses through Senior Week; meanwhile, on-campus seniors may choose to stay in Airbnbs, hotels or with their off-campus friends. These less-regulated spaces constitute a much more significant threat to public health, and it is disappointing that the university’s leadership — who claim to be operating with public health and safety in mind — are actively facilitating this risk to the Tufts, Medford and Somerville communities.
According to the survey we conducted, over 95% of the seniors who have finalized their post-finals plans intend to stay in the area for Senior Week despite Tufts’ decision to end surveillance testing and close on-campus housing. Fewer than 15% of total seniors remain unsure of their plans. A commanding 98% of respondents agreed that Tufts should continue to provide COVID-19 surveillance testing through May 23. Most powerfully, every single survey respondent indicated their belief that Tufts should allow seniors to remain in their on-campus housing through May 23. Tufts will endanger its youngest alumni and its host communities if it ignores students’ intentions to remain in the Medford and Somerville communities and the student consensus regarding COVID-19 surveillance testing and on-campus housing.
The claim that maintaining COVID-19 testing and on-campus housing for just one additional week would incentivize large gatherings is comparable to the claim that abstinence-only sex education is the best way to limit teenage pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Our own Department of Community Health teaches that this logic is inconsistent with public health science — harm reduction measures are effective precisely because they embrace reality. The administration’s hope that all seniors will vacate the area before Commencement is an assumption that is incorrect in light of our survey data and one that ultimately endangers public health.
We chose to attend Tufts to become part of a community — one that lasts for life. As long as a student is matriculated at Tufts, the university is responsible for providing an education and the resources necessary to maintain their physical and mental health, with the tacit understanding that these obligations would end upon Commencement. Until that time, they continue to be a community member, a status which cannot be revoked by administrative decision. The premature termination of on-campus housing and COVID-19 testing is a violation of the university’s obligations to students. The sheer emotional significance of Commencement necessitates the weighing of competing interests and potential consequences when making decisions such as this one.
At best, Tufts’ decision to end COVID-19 surveillance testing and remove seniors from on-campus housing before virtual Senior Week and Commencement is naïve and unintentionally inequitable. At worst, this same decision willfully deepens socioeconomic inequity and poses a threat to members of the Class of 2021 and the Medford and Somerville communities.
There is still time for the university’s leadership to live up to its stated commitment to evidence-based public health practices in light of students’ concerns and the clear results of our survey. We urge the university to reconsider this decision in a way that preserves public safety and honors students’ voices. We look forward to working with members of the administration should they be willing to do so.
Grant Gebetsberger is a senior studying international relations and is the TCU vice president. Grant can be reached at email@example.com. Sharif Hamidi is a senior studying community health and is the TCU treasurer. Sharif can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah Wiener is a senior studying philosophy and is TCU president. Sarah can be reached at email@example.com.