On Feb. 16, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced it would open COVID-19 vaccine registration for all UNL employees, including student workers. As a student worker of the university myself, I was excited and eager to sign up for a vaccine.
After months of indecisive testing protocols and constantly shifting requirements, this action was refreshing. It was decisive. It was absolute.
But it’s not enough. Not quite yet.
I commend UNL on its dedication to securing vaccines for UNL staff members. When the time comes, it must use the same dedication and zeal toward acquiring vaccines for on-campus students. These students live in conditions that, despite the efforts of the UNL community, will always be problematic and prone to viral spread.
College students have been the long-time source of blame for COVID-19 spikes — and reasonably so. Areas with big colleges and universities suffered huge jumps in case numbers with the start of the fall semester back in 2020, and it seems another new insurgence is on the horizon for the new year.
It’s become a commonly grumbled argument — “those darn college kids and their lack of responsibility. They don’t think about anyone but themselves. They don’t care what damage they bring to the community they’re in. They’re all partygoers and superspreaders.”
But I’d like to entertain a notion for a moment that maybe — just maybe — every college student is not out to infect as many people as possible. Perhaps college students are just as varied as any large swath of the population, with extremes on both ends of the spectrum. In between, maybe most college students just want the best for both themselves and their community.
Then what are we to blame? Like most of the arguments I choose to explore, let’s examine the concept that trends in rising COVID-19 cases are more than just irresponsible, reckless college kids. Perhaps one of the most fundamental parts of the college experience continuously handicaps the ability of universities to stop the spread.
Perhaps a college campus is one of the riskiest places to live during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the past year, the home has become a crucial place. When public areas hold the danger of the masses, home sweet home has become a place of rescue. Relax on the couch without worrying about social distancing. Cook food with your family in the kitchen. Go to the bathroom without dwelling on your mask.
This is a luxury on-campus students do not have.
In the dorms — especially traditional-style ones — students' very living spaces are potential places of exposure. Dozens of students share a bathroom, and entire halls are required to use the same eating space. On campus, the only truly safe refuge is a tiny, white-walled dorm room that often feels more like imprisonment than liberation. Even the idea of relaxing on a couch usually requires venturing into a lounge area shared by an entire floor.
There are partygoers and superspreaders at UNL. But there are also students who came down with COVID-19 after a movie night in the lounge or a trip to the dining hall with their roommates. Living on a college campus can never be truly socially distanced because dorms are designed to pack students in as tight as possible. Isolation goes against their fundamental purpose.
Enter the COVID-19 vaccine and its new place here at the university. Compared to the usual uncertainty from UNL’s administration when approaching a reaction to COVD-19, its choice to vaccinate staff was resolute and decisive. In all honesty, it was impressive.
But this can’t be the end of UNL’s vaccination efforts. Certainly, there are other groups that currently take priority for the vaccines the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department now has on hand. However, when the time comes, the university must work to provide opportunities for student vaccinations — especially those on campus. Those in traditional dorms deserve to have the opportunity to live as traditional dorms were designed — as an interlocking, interconnected community. They should be able to do so without fear.
This isn’t to say that the university hasn’t enacted enough safety measures to counteract COVID-19. Personally, I think the university has done a phenomenal job making on-campus living secure, especially in the dining department. Its new system of mobile ordering and to-go options provides students with a plethora of options to eat in a way that doesn’t compromise their safety.
However, these accommodations are not flawless, and they certainly aren’t built for the long term. Behind Selleck’s food counter, buffet counters and sneeze guards still bear the remnants of the dining hall’s former glory. One side of Cather’s entree serving station often remains dark and unused. University Housing is trying its best, but it is clear the current system is not the optimal one.
These accommodations also winnow away when considering the actual dorms on campus. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Housing now requires mask-wearing outside of students’ dorm rooms and has increased cleaning.
Still, the fundamental role of dorm living — packing lots of students in small places — is unchanged, and therein lies our problem. There’s a reason why, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d walk into my on-campus residence hall and find certain dorm floors under lockdown. The very culture of dorm living is prone to the spread of disease, and that is something that will not change.
Since we cannot eliminate cases through social distancing and mask-wearing, the COVID-19 vaccine will be crucial to controlling the virus and how long it continues to affect our community.
UNL has tried its best to evolve with the times. However, the important part of evolution is that it is constant. The university must continue to move forward with the times, and that next step is securing vaccinations at the proper time for its students on campus.
Emma Krab is a sophomore English and journalism double major. Reach her at email@example.com.