The block system has been an absolute failure in the midst of COVID-19.
I, along with many other First-years who arrived in August, was assured that I would have a “social block” and be able to make friends outside of my living block. Both assumptions were proven wrong. The reasoning behind the block system is that it should limit contact and make contact tracing easier, as students have a sort of “family” on campus. However, what happens if you are not part of that family?
One of the first things everyone tells you when you go to college is that the people you are friends with in the first week will not be your friends later on. The block system assumes this is not true, to our detriment. One student who wished to remain anonymous because of the added pressure of block drama said, “I had an argument with my block, and I now have no friends, because it’s hard to make friends when everyone else has a friend group.”
The block system has made Wellesley incredibly cliquish, and this is not a unique story. Students who are not instant friends with their blocks are stuck making an impossible decision: they must either disregard the college’s COVID rules or isolate themselves completely.
One First-year was randomly placed in a two-person block instead of the usual four to six-person block. When she found out about her unusually small block before moving on campus, she contacted residential life and expressed her concern over the lack of social contact a two-person block entails. Their response was that she “would be able to interact and eat with anyone [she] wanted to”.
Given the rules we’ve been operating on this was never true, and has become less so with updates, and the new rules. If anything, it’s become harder to “interact and eat with anyone”. This student’s only blockmate went home for Thanksgiving, meaning that she is living in a block of one for her last three weeks on campus. For any student, this would be extremely isolating. The first semester of college is hard for most people, and college-enforced solitude makes it even worse.
In the absence of in-person, college-sponsored social gatherings and club meetings, eating is one of the few things that students can do with their friends. However, students are supposed to only eat with blockmates. If you are not friends with your blockmates or they are busy, you are supposed to always eat alone. When you sign into dining halls, you are supposed to affirm that you are eating with blockmates.
As of November 13th, there is a tentative meal block system, but it isn’t very accessible and has been presented as intended for students in small blocks of two or three. This only helps a small group of students, as those with blocks of five or six can’t easily access the program. It also assumes that isolated students have had the opportunity to make new friends. Even if a student is mildly interested in the program, they still have to email student housing. It isn’t an easily accessible system. Thus, students aren’t very likely to use it even if they can.
Given that most students regularly eat outside of their blocks, many do not sign into dining hall contact tracing systems. Or, they choose to eat in common spaces other than the dining halls, spaces that provide less social distance and do not have contact tracing. If anything, these college rules on the dining system make Wellesley students more at risk for COVID.
Like many other students, I do not interact with my blockmates at all. Yet, if one of them tested positive for COVID I would go into quarantine automatically. This is absolutely ridiculous. We are in the middle of a mental health crisis as well as a viral one, and quarantine should only happen when necessary.
Part of the reasoning the administration has given us for the block system is the shared use of facilities. Each block is assigned a set of one toilet, one sink, and one shower. Several blocks are assigned to each bathroom. Once again, this does not make any sense. I regularly go into the bathroom and see someone from another block brushing their teeth (mask off, of course). I am much more likely to get COVID from brushing my teeth right next to someone from another block than from someone from my block who is using the same toilet. If I tested positive, it would make more sense to quarantine the other two blocks that use my bathroom than to only quarantine my own block. Most of the concern over the use of public toilets is due to the airborne nature of COVID, not butt to butt contact.
There are communal bathrooms in academic buildings and some of the dorms, but no contract tracing is employed for these bathrooms. If the reasoning that led admin to make blocks use the same toilet holds true this should be a public safety hazard, but it is not. Furthermore, many times you cannot use the nearest dorm bathroom because of the block system. As a First-year who did not start figuring out where the communal bathrooms are until very recently, I have regularly chosen to simply hold it rather than walk fifteen minutes to my dorm. This just encourages a UTI.
COVID regulations on campus have loosened, and now we are allowed to have up to two blockmates in our rooms at a time. While this is clearly too little too late considering the damaging isolation imposed on us during the first half of the semester, it is also too late in terms of student habits. By over-regulating students, the school is almost encouraging students to break the rules. It is a well-known idea that someone who lives in a controlling environment will just get better at lying. Most Wellesley students are cautious and do take the pandemic seriously, but college rules are far past cautious. Students are people, and expecting them to perfectly isolate is just unrealistic.
If students are not friends with their blockmates, rules dictate that they should always eat alone and never socialize in their rooms. This has created a wide divide on campus. There are students who will have one or two friends in their room from outside their blocks and eat with whoever they want. There are also students who are adamant about not breaking the rules and simply do not socialize very often, if at all.
One thing I have noticed is that First-years are much more likely than other students to be extremely cautious. We have never experienced Wellesley without COVID. We are not as likely to smoke with our friends or eat outside of our blocks because many of us just do not have the friends or the habit of on-campus interactions. In the absence of opportunities to meet new friends, First-years are much more isolated than upperclassmen, who have already established friend groups and usually have blocks of close friends.
For some lucky students, most of these are mild concerns, as they are very close with their blockmates. However, we cannot blame students for breaking the rules if their only alternative is complete social isolation. These students are not wildly irresponsible. I don’t know any students who leave campus or throw parties, which would be extremely dangerous. I do know plenty of responsible students who had to choose their mental health over the block system. In President Paula Johnson’s most recent email, she said the rules “are not designed to punish,” but unfortunately that is exactly what they have done.