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A Yale professor’s stark warning to returning students: Be prepared for deaths

Vanderbilt Hall stands on the Yale University campus. (Craig Warga/Bloomberg)

As Yale University announced its intentions to return to campus for the fall semester, the head of one residential college shared a dire assessment of what students may face.

Psychology professor Laurie Santos told students they should consider that their behavior could have “life-or-death consequences” in a July 1 email obtained by The Washington Post.

“While things will of course continue to evolve as the COVID-19 situation changes, it’s safe to say that your life in residence in the coming academic year will not be anything like the life you remember at Yale before COVID-19,” Santos wrote to the residents of Silliman College, one of the 14 undergraduate communities at the New Haven, Conn., campus.

She told Silliman residents to “emotionally prepare for the fact that your residential college life will look more like a hospital unit than a residential college,” citing the need for some spaces to be used for regular coronavirus testing for students and staff.

Santos’s July email resurfaced this week after a Yale Daily News article included excerpts of the note. That timing coincided with moves from at least two colleges to pull back on in-person instruction after the coronavirus spread among students, days after fall classes began.

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Officials at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said this week that the school would shift to all-remote instruction after spikes in coronavirus cases on its campus. The University of Notre Dame also announced a pause in on-site teaching for at least two weeks to curb a spike in infections.

Suzanne Brown, a rising Yale junior who said she was a resident of Silliman for her first two years, said she appreciated the honesty in Santos’s email, adding that it is partly what helped her decide to take a year off from Yale.

She said the email — as well as honest, virtual town halls Santos held with Silliman students — stood in contrast with what felt at the time like a rosier picture from other university officials about the impending return to campus.

“I appreciated that she was trying to be as transparent as possible,” Brown told The Washington Post. “The email was needed — it felt at the time like the larger university administrators were saying ‘Don’t worry, everything will be okay.’ ”

Brown described reading the July email in her living room in New Haven, where she and other friends and classmates are quarantining for the summer. Reading Santos’s words, she said she began to think: “Maybe it’s time to take a gap year.”

Santos did not respond to an interview request from The Post.

The email was sent at the beginning of last month, after Yale President Peter Salovey initially announced plans to have students return to campus for the fall.

Yale will allow three of four undergraduate classes to return to campus each semester for the year. First-year students may live on campus for the fall semester only, which begins Aug. 31, while sophomores may do the same for the spring semester. Juniors and seniors may be on campus for the full year. Most classes will still be taught remotely, with some in-person instruction. Students can also continue to take classes remotely if they choose not to return to Yale’s campus.

Since Santos’s July email, university officials have provided additional guidance to students about what they can expect. In a Friday email to students, Yale’s president noted “encouraging public health trends” in the state, and outlined comprehensive testing plans, and plans to reduce density at residential colleges and other university housing.

In a statement sent to The Post, Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said university leaders “will continue to emphasize collective responsibility for adherence to health and safety rules and for behavior conducive to public health and education.”

Peart added: “President Salovey said in his Aug. 14 update to students that each member of the Yale community plays a vital role in maintaining the health and safety of our community. ‘Every single one of our choices, from putting on a face covering to maintaining distance from others, makes a difference,’ he said.”

Brown also praised Santos’s warnings that student behavior would not just affect students, but also staff working at the residential college — including maintenance staff or dining hall workers — who may not have a choice about whether to return.

“Decisions we make about social distancing and other aspects of our behavior can have life-or-death consequences, especially for our vulnerable staff who won’t have the same choice you have to remain off-campus,” Santos said in the email.

She added: “We all should be emotionally prepared for widespread infections — and possibly deaths — in our community. Many of our staff members are from sectors of society that are most vulnerable to Covid-19 infection and mortality, so following the community guidelines will be essential for protecting them.”

Brown said Santos is “just someone who is very aware and conscious of staff at Silliman, who very much understands there are more people to this university than its students and professors — that’s a perspective that’s often overlooked.”

The email from Santos also cited a contract students returning to campus must sign pledging to adhere to health and safety protocols. The contract includes details about mandated covid-19 testing and required contact tracing, as well as restrictions on gatherings and travel.

Yale spokeswoman Peart told The Post that students “unable to meet these commitments will lose access to campus.”

Some Yale students told The Post they thought Santos wanted to encourage students who could safely stay home and learn remotely to do so, as a way to protect those who did not have a choice about whether to return to campus, including students who rely on university housing.

Madeleine Hutchins, a graduate student at Yale’s Divinity School, said she saw the merit in “encouraging students to be mindful.”

Hutchins questioned Yale’s plan to move ahead with reopening campus, pointing to other schools’ recent shifts away from in-person instruction.

“Now that we’ve seen UNC and Notre Dame go online, and other schools, too, we just know that it’s probably not going to be good,” Hutchins said. “Even if there is some scenario where people could come back safely, that’s clearly not what’s happening. It’s almost like they’ve never met college students.”

Referring to Santos’s email, Hutchins added: “If these are the warranted things that heads of colleges are feeling like they have to say, we probably shouldn’t be coming back at all, at least not in the way we’re trying to do it.”