Gordon College began the semester with two weeks of online instruction before returning to in-person classes on January 24. The decision to pivot to virtual education was made in light of the wave of increased covid-19 cases caused by the new omicron variant around the new year.
This variant was first discovered in Botswana and South Africa in November of 2021. On the 10th of January, Massachusetts recorded the highest number of new cases ever at 64,715 according to an interactive case map from the New York Times.
In addition to the deferral of in-person classes, many gatherings and events were cancelled in response to the omicron wave. Gordon’s winter musical, My Favorite Year, scheduled to debut at Beverly’s Cabot Theater on January 28, had to cease production. The musical transitioned to a simpler, concert-style performance that took place in the Chapel on February 12. Sporting events barred all in-person attendance until in-person classes began.
Students were worried about the tightening of covid-related restrictions and the possibility of the closure of campus, similar to the events of March 2020.
As a sophomore psychology student explained, “I’d been very worried about omicron as we came back to campus this semester, both because I really don’t want the people I care for to get sick and because of the impact that covid-19 restrictions had on community, despite their absolute necessity.”
Between the 3rd and 30th of January, Gordon College recorded 194 positive cases, a 6.9% positivity rate on campus compared to previous waves of the pandemic. However, Chris Jones, Vice President for Administration, is not so concerned only with sheer number of cases.
“You look at our [covid-19] dashboard and think, ‘oh my goodness, more cases than ever!’ We had one hundred cases in two weeks. Last year, we would’ve been locked down and sheltered in place; this year, we expect to have a lot of cases. A lot of these people barely knew that they had something, or maybe they got feverish…and then they were released [from isolation], now they feel better, and they don’t have to test for 90 days,” he said. However, he went on to add that, “We do know that some can still get very sick, so we can’t ignore the potential threat.”
Data suggests that omicron is a more contagious but less deadly variant of covid-19. Symptoms are generally milder, especially among vaccinated individuals, but transmission rates between the asymptomatic are much higher compared to previous strains. Given the fact that the virus is seldom dangerous to young adults between 18-22, the strategy of the school is “…to manage safely through more positive cases rather than avoid them, since the latest surge has shown that more cases are a reality,” according to a Covid-19 Taskforce update from the 26th of January.
This “reality” of higher case counts prompted the delayed return to in-person classes. The idea was that students would trickle in over a two week period rather than all come back at once over the weekend. “This was really to spread it out. Yes we’re going to see case counts rise, but those people get through isolation before the other group gets back,” Jones stated. “We try to make that curve a little flatter so then we don’t overflow our quarantine and isolation space so that we can help control the spread a little bit.”
The relative success or failure of such strategies are difficult to measure, especially because different voices disagree as to what goals the school ought to pursue. Regarding the decision to move Fall semester final exams online, Jones stated that “…whether that was the right decision I don’t know. If we had cancelled quad break and Thanksgiving break things might’ve been different. Should we have cancelled? Was that a failure or a success? How do you cancel Thanksgiving? … [The success of our protocols] is determined by if you think our protocols are too strong or too weak.”
However, covid-19 cases on campus appear to be on the decline again, mirroring trends in Massachusetts as a whole. On the week of February 14, Gordon recorded just one positive case, down from eight cases the week prior. There is uncertainty as to whether the lower case counts can be attributed to Gordon’s isolation and quarantine strategy, but if the ‘winter wave’ truly is over, case counts may remain low until students disperse and return for Spring and Easter breaks.
The debate surrounding covid-19 policy is often polarizing, and Gordon must navigate tricky waters between the expectations of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts (AICUM), the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), the recommendations of the CDC and the local board of health, and state and city laws.
“…[W]ith all of our policies, even at the cabinet level, sometimes we’re very split,” Jones said. “Some of us feel one way, some feel the other way, and we listen to all the experts. You can line up all the scientific this-and-that and doctors on both sides and it’s like ‘they can’t all be right!’”
Despite these difficulties, Jones clearly established the primary goal of these protocols: to make in-person learning possible.
“We don’t always get it perfect, but that’s the challenge. How do we get people from both sides to at least feel comfortable being in the same room together?”
With this in mind, Gordon is pursuing as little distinction as possible between protocols for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Gordon College is one very few of institutions in Massachusetts that does not have a student vaccine mandate, and all students must follow the same testing protocol of receiving one PCR test per week, regardless of vaccination status.
Yet, given how closely Gordon positivity rates have correlated with local positivity rates this semester, Jones personally wonders whether the pandemic can truly be contained.
“I wonder how much of the virus we can really control…we do some of these things and maybe that helps a bit but, ultimately, I fully believe the Lord is in control of all things and I rest fully in that knowledge.”
Currently, all covid-19 protocol decisions are made on a rolling basis, decided with prudence based on available information, rather than strictly by number of cases. Jones explained, “…everything evolves over time. So, one of the things we have to look at is where we see spread, and that’s where we target our protocols.” Spread of covid in classroom settings is uncommon, whereas spread is more likely to occur in informal settings. This informed the decision to bar all inter-hall visitation at the start of semester. However, this rule has been lifted as of February 1.
Jones closed with these comments:
“Be patient with us. … I’ve been so impressed with this community. And yes, we’re at odds sometimes and we disagree, but we come together in our shared mission, which is what keeps me here at Gordon. … [E]very group sometimes feels like they’re not being listened to…but we get a lot of feedback and that really informs the decisions we make.”