I’m all for rules that help prevent the spread of COVID-19: wearing masks, keeping more than six feet apart from anyone, even cancelling competitive sports seasons to keep our bubble tight. But last fall, Wellesley instituted one measure that is both useless in preventing disease and highly inconvenient for students.
I’m talking about assigned bathroom fixtures.
In July, I noticed an unusual answer to one of the Housing Selection FAQs: “Students will be assigned to specific bathroom fixtures, including one toilet, sink and shower.” This was new. The website explains that fixtures are assigned “in order to achieve appropriate ratios and social distancing.”
Ease of contact tracing seems to be another reason behind assigning bathrooms. A Feb. 12 email from the Office of Residential Life and Housing stated that “members of each residential block are considered close contacts due to sharing bathroom fixtures.” This bypasses the CDC’s current definition of a close contact: “someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period.”
I’m hardly ever in my bathroom at the same time as someone else. My mask-free time (almost always alone) in my assigned bathroom, from showering and brushing my teeth, does not even add up to 15 minutes over 24 hours. (I take short showers.) So why does sharing bathroom fixtures automatically make blockmates close contacts?
My bathroom is assigned to my block and half of another. The unlucky floormates from the other block have to go up three stairs and through two doors every time they have to pee. Our bathroom’s one shower is used by members of two blocks, so you cannot even pretend that assigned fixtures keep us unmasked only within our blocks. Despite our shared bathroom — including the shower — those hallmates are not considered close contacts. (Unless they are, in which case the email from res life is misleading.)
Maybe it has to do with high-touch surfaces, like faucets and flush levers. But over a year into the pandemic, much of the evidence suggests that the coronavirus does not tend to travel this way.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states on its website that “transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces contaminated with the virus has not been documented.” Scientists like Emanuel Goldberg, a microbiology professor, say that “surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all by the science.”
And yet Wellesley assigned us toilets, sinks and showers.
Adding to the ridiculousness of this rule is that we share bathrooms in every non-residential building on campus. Lulu? Shared bathrooms. The Science Center, the mods, Pendleton? Shared bathrooms. If they truly posed a risk, these communal bathrooms would be closed, or at least monitored with a sign-in system for contact tracing.
Being bound to a specific toilet or shower is aggravating. A few times last fall, I returned to my room from practice with about twenty minutes until the start of class — which is plenty of time for me to shower and pack my bag — to find a hallmate just beginning a twenty-minute shower. I either have to ask her to get out, break the rule and use a different shower or show up late to class.
Wellesley needs to stop pretending that assigned toilets do anything to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Students aren’t hanging out with others on the toilet. Coronavirus doesn’t travel through touch. The approach is not even consistent with communal bathrooms in academic buildings. Assigned bathrooms don’t protect us. They just force us into situations of not having time to shower or putting off our business until we’re uncomfortable when custodians are cleaning our assigned stalls.
As administrators consider lifting certain regulations this spring, they should do away with assigned bathroom fixtures. Assigned bathrooms have no basis in preventing the spread of coronavirus, and they put students in both physically and socially uncomfortable situations. Students should have the freedom to use the toilet and shower wherever and whenever it is convenient.