Club Corona: Tufts Clubs Navigating COVID-19

Clubs and student organizations are, in many ways, the center of different Tufts communities; now, they must adjust to a new normal while also considering how to keep campus safe and limit the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible. In the midst of a pandemic, Tufts has resumed on-campus classes and activities, with some students moving back onto campus and others participating virtually from home. This hybrid approach, along with new regulations focused on preventing the spread of COVID-19, means student life has undergone significant changes. Many classes are now completely online, no groups larger than ten people may meet in person, and Tufts has even placed new bans on singing and playing wind instruments on campus. 

The Office of Campus Life, which oversees student activities, is working to support student organizations as they transition to virtual platforms. The annual student organization fair was hosted on a platform called Remo, and the new website JumboLife is an online hub for groups to post events and interact with members. The OCL plans to work with student groups to balance campus health with the unique needs of different organizations. Two of the biggest challenges they’ve experienced are the large size of some groups and the lack of spaces to meet in, now that many meeting spaces have been repurposed into classrooms.

“We’re more than happy to work with student organizations if they are interested in being creative in how they approach their work,” Chelsea Jordan, the assistant director for Campus Life Operations, explained, “though I would offer that a lot of student organizations are really taking the initiative to do that themselves, and it’s been really great to see how they are creatively approaching their work and still getting folks involved, even though they have to meet in a virtual capacity or maybe in a more limited capacity than they have in the past.”

This new virtual environment also means that organizations have to find new ways to ensure that their meetings are accessible. For international students who are attending Tufts virtually this semester, there are now higher barriers to participating in social life and organizations. For those living in different time zones, virtual meetings and events are often infeasible to attend because they take place in the middle of the night. Ibrahim AlMuasher, a second-year international student, pointed out that while most general interest meetings happen in the evening in Massachusetts, “It’s 2:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., here in the Middle East, and even worse if you are somewhere in Asia or Southeast Asia. And I think that that just is a complete oversight of trying to create an inclusive campus.” He added, “I think that it’s worse for first-year international students who were unable to go to campus in the US.”

AlMuasher said that to remedy this, student organizations must make accessibility for international students a priority. He pointed out that this could take the form of recorded meetings or other asynchronous opportunities for involvement. “International students and first-year students have had to take initiative to go out of their way to meet people,” he said, “which I think is really unfair to them, because if we’re trying to create an inclusive atmosphere, then we need to take some of this inconvenience of the time zone difference, and put some of the burden on ourselves.” 

Music and performance groups have been impacted by the pandemic as well. Tufts recently announced a complete ban on students singing or playing wind instruments, which applies when students are outside, in bedrooms, and alone. According to a university press release from September 4, this is because “current scientific evidence strongly indicates that singing or the playing of wind instruments generates aerosolized particles that can remain in the air for a very long period of time and can transmit coronavirus to others.” However, some members of the Tufts music community are still dissatisfied with this response. “It just doesn’t make sense,” said Athena Nair, a sophomore and a cappella group sQ!’s music director. “It’s not clear why singing in your own bedroom spreads COVID.” sQ! plans to focus on non-singing activities for the fall semester, including working on arrangements and hosting bondings.

Nair also described how the new policy has affected her on an emotional level, and how extracurricular activities can be extremely important to students: “As someone who loves singing…that’s a lot to give up, especially now, and singing is like the only thing that I can do. I have to give up dance, too, because I’m on a floor where people are below me if I dance. So singing seems like the only thing I can do, but I can’t even do that…I think we all need some space to pursue art and hobbies.”

Another music group, community service-focused Public Harmony, usually hosts performances every week at women’s shelters and assisted living facilities. Now, instead of in-person concerts, they’re reaching out to venues to host virtual events and are putting together a 30-minute cable TV program for local TV stations. The program will consist of pre-existing recordings to get around the singing ban, and because it’s on television, it will be more accessible for senior citizens who may not be able to use programs like Skype and Zoom.

 “Everybody is being super creative to try to work around [the no singing policy] until maybe the restrictions are changed,” said Public Harmony Co-President Devon McKeon. She expressed more concern for music majors who are unable to work around the regulations, and added, “I think the policy is more problematic for people who don’t have another option; we have a couple options that aren’t ideal, but they’re hopefully going to work for this matter.” 

Activist and advocacy groups, while less impacted by social distancing guidelines than music and performance groups, also have to get creative in their work. Leila Skinner, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, discussed the ways that SJP has adapted their work to a virtual environment. Over the summer, the group hosted an online book club called “Reading for Abolition” where members came together to read Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. This fall, they plan to continue their work with a mix of virtual and in-person, socially-distanced events. Skinner emphasized the fact that advocacy work does not have to be bound by physical limitations: “We don’t need Tufts…being with each other [in-person] is so amazing, but there’s so many ways to be with each other virtually.” 

Another student organization, Tufts After School Tutoring and Enrichment (TASTE), which pairs Tufts students with elementary and middle school mentees at the Mystic Learning Center in Somerville, is still not sure what their work will look like this fall. They want to find a way to continue to connect with students while also recognizing the need for social distancing and coordinating busy schedules. New activities may include members writing letters to their mentees, dropping off games at the center, or hosting tutoring sessions outside or over Zoom. “It’s really hard to do virtual activities with kids, and they’re not really able to stay focused or engaged through the screen, especially the younger ones,” said Sophie Driker, the co-president of TASTE. 

She also emphasized the importance of the connections formed between Tufts students and their mentees: “It’s been communicated from the Mystic staff that it means a lot to the kids, and it means a lot to the Tufts students who form relationships with them––because these are meant to be long-lasting bonds over time, and for the most part, they are.”

The challenge of staying connected, building community, and doing meaningful work during a global pandemic is one that calls for creativity and flexibility. Accessibility is a large concern, as are the unprecedented difficulties students may be facing in their health or living situations. Above all, students recognize the need to ensure safety on campus and within the community. 

“I just know there are lives at stake,” Nair said, “and I want us to be really cognizant of that and think about the future, [to be able to] look back and be like okay, I’m glad I did everything I could to keep Tufts, to keep Medford, to keep our entire community safe.”