In June 2020, Binghamton University sent out a special housing license addendum which outlined a new set of rules for students living on campus in the 2020-2021 school year. One of the major changes for students was that residents were not allowed to have any students who lived outside their building over as guests at any time, for any reason. This meant that friends from other buildings and off-campus students would be prohibited from entering residential spaces. This was a major change from previous semesters where students were allowed to have guests over at any time as long as they were accompanied by a host from that building. The policy was implemented as a way to control the spread of COVID-19 and allow for an easier time for contract tracing if a residential student were to test positive for the coronavirus. Students who are caught repeatedly violating the no-visitor policy can be removed from their housing for the remainder of the academic year without any refund.
As a student currently living on campus, I can admit that this policy has been challenging for me on many levels. First, during this past year, I was moved to a new building where I did not know anyone initially. In a normal year, this would be no problem because I would typically be able to visit my friends in other buildings and would be able to have them over in my room. However with this new change, I have been unable to have any of my friends over and I haven’t been able to visit friends in other on-campus buildings. For students living apart from friends or in single rooms, this policy has been extremely socially isolating.
The second problem with this policy is its actual efficacy. In theory, this policy makes a lot of sense, but in reality, it is easy for students to let their friends into their building by swiping them in with their own ID card. At other colleges, like Northeastern University, guests must sign in at a “proctor station” using a valid photo ID. However, BU does not have the same setup, and so unless resident assistants (RAs) were to check whether every student they saw actually lived in the building, which they don’t, it would be extremely difficult to keep track of who is obeying the policy and who is not.
Let’s just pretend for a minute that everyone on campus has actually been obeying this policy since the fall. If this were true, what difference does it make when a student goes to visit a friend in their apartment in Downtown Binghamton? Does their chance of contracting COVID-19 disappear when students are not in their dorms? At this point, the policy is largely creating barriers for students who do not have cars or friends who live downtown. The University’s no-visitor policy makes it so that students must go to great lengths to simply watch a movie or play a game with a friend on a Friday night.
Now comes the question of COVID-19. Those who implemented this campus policy had the right idea in mind: limit the inevitable spread. This makes a lot of sense. Syracuse University, for example, adopted a similar policy to ours where only visitors from within a student’s building may enter their room. Students at the University at Buffalo face even more rigorous restrictions with no visitors being allowed whatsoever. But other campuses have not been so aggressive and have still managed to survive. The University at Albany limits guests to students who live on campus, and Stony Brook University has limited guests to university students only.
The question I have is this: If I’m hanging out with a friend outside my dorm, what would be so bad about having that same friend over in my room? I am not advocating breaking any other COVID-19 policies, such as allowing large groups to congregate in residential space or turning student dorms into a hotspot for partying. Instead, I am raising a possible solution to the problems of loneliness, isolation and overall unhappiness that many on-campus students are facing.
In the fall, the no-visitor policy was cumbersome but manageable for on-campus students — when it was 75 degrees, it was easy to agree to meet a friend in the Peace Quad or take a hike through the Nature Preserve. However, throughout the winter, socializing outside has been far from realistic and University officials should not be surprised to find that many students have struggled immensely both mentally and socially as a result of the no-visitor policy. Allowing students to have a limited number of guests in their room, while following other rules in place, could create opportunities for students to connect with their friends and more fully enjoy the college experience. Since cases have recently declined and stayed at a low overall positive test rate, Residential Life should consider relaxing its no-visitor policy before the end of the semester. As housing sign-ups for the 2021-2022 school year come to a close, Residential Life may be surprised to find that many students may choose to forgo the on-campus living experience in exchange for leases off campus with fewer restrictions that directly affect their mental health and happiness. Even if the no-visitor policy is not lifted this semester, it is important to urge our campus administrators to consider dropping the no-visitor policy in the fall of 2021.
Jonathan Gaughan is a senior majoring in integrative neuroscience.