Hawaii, Florida, Seattle and the South of France are among the dream destinations for New York City undergraduates who have been forced to postpone the traditional college ritual of spring break for the second year in a row, because of the pandemic.
“I’d be getting a house with 10 people, with a pool, and we’d be going crazy in Miami, right below downtown Miami,” said Sile Ogundeyin, 22, a senior economics major at Columbia University, who was sitting on the steps of the library with his friends.
“I was supposed to be in London for study abroad this semester, so I probably would’ve gone some place close to there for spring break — maybe in southern Europe,” said New York University sophomore Aliyah Verdiner, 20, a business major from Brooklyn. “That would’ve been a lot of fun, but I guess not this year.”
Some students, however, have managed to be adventurous. Rumors on campus abound about students who exploited loopholes and got vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to party and travel for spring break.
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“She’s going skiing in Vermont with a bunch of friends,” said Aliza Abusch-Magder, referring to her roommate, whom she declined to name. “She’s very excited to be going to parties and — how do I say this? — making up for lost time in quarantine.”
Abusch-Magder said her roommate invoked “something in her medical history, that doesn’t actually affect her day-to-day, to qualify for the vaccine.”
Other students had similar reports about classmates getting vaccinated, such as those who had childhood asthma in their past — but not their present.
“I just don’t think it’s ethical,” said Abusch-Magder, a first-year English major from Atlanta. She also expressed doubt that such behavior was widespread at Columbia, saying she’d heard many of these stories from high school friends now attending other colleges.
“I think here it’s an outlier, and I think at some schools it’s standard,” Abusch-Magder explained. “There’s a very high standard of ethics here, and there’s a lot of discourse on it.”
It’s impossible to know how often college students are getting vaccinated. Rumors of it happening illegitimately are widespread, but most of the stories, unlike Abusch-Magder’s, appear to be second-hand. And many situations aren’t so duplicitous upon closer examination, either because the vaccinated students are actually eligible, they work in labs or health care settings or have underlying health issues that make them high risk for severe COVID.
Students attend classes remotely on their laptops while lounging in the sun on the steps of Low Library at Columbia University.
Fred Mogul for NPR
Shira Michaeli has one of those health issues. “I put in my height. I put in my weight. And it said I was obese,” Michaeli explained while sitting on the Columbia library steps. Obesity is a health condition that makes people eligible for vaccines in at least 29 states.
Michaeli was a bit ambivalent about qualifying for the vaccine in that way, because she feels healthy. She’s also comfortable with her body weight, and does not believe it’s a “co-morbidity.” But she has had breathing problems since suffering a bad case of COVID-19 last year. She also plans to work as a camp counselor this summer. Ultimately, Michaeli feels she does qualify for the vaccine on a few counts, even if her body mass index is the only thing that officially qualifies her.
“I think for a while, I was really insecure about it. And then I thought, ‘Listen, for most of my life [my weight] has been bad for me. Clothing hasn’t been my size. People haven’t been…” Michaeli voice trailed off. “But, for once in my life, it’ll benefit me, instead of hurting me.”
Michaeli was scheduled to receive her first shot the following day, so she was still several weeks away from being fully vaccinated. Too late to make spring break plans, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because she had decided to stay close to her dorm, work on papers, perhaps sleep in a little more than usual, and get coffee with friends.
“I’m excited to get vaccinated, but I don’t think it’s going to give me any freedom other people don’t have,” said Michaeli, a 19-year-old Bronx native. “I think I’ll be a little less anxious, but I don’t think it’s going to change any of my behavior. I think there are plenty of people being unsafe, so I don’t have any wiggle room to be unsafe.”
In downtown Manhattan, the “campus” of New York University consists of buildings scattered throughout Greenwich Village, with Washington Square Park functioning as the campus quadrangle. This year, there was little tension at NYU between vaccine “haves” and “have-nots,” because the usual spring break week was cancelled. Instead, NYU officials gave students a single day off, creating a three-day weekend in March.
“If there wasn’t COVID, and there was a real spring break, I’d probably try to plan something with my friends,” said Simran Hajarnavis, who was relaxing with classmates in Washington Square Park. She turned to a friend and asked jokingly “Want to go to Hawaii?”
Hajarnavis and her girlfriends said they’re not too worried about getting vaccinated right away — just as long as they can get their shots in time to study abroad next school year, their junior year.
Aishani Ramireddy was sitting nearby. She explained she had already gotten her COVID-19 vaccine, but she’s not doing anything differently from other NYU students. “It’s definitely weird,” she said.
Ramireddy’s mother is a physician in Los Angeles. She says when she was home for a visit, she got the vaccine at her mother’s office, at the end of the day, because there were unused doses that would have been thrown out.
Still, she felt conflicted about it: “It just felt like such a privilege to even have that as an option.”
Another NYU student, Anna Domahidi, from Chicago, also had an opportunity to get a vaccine, but declined. She doesn’t hold it against her friend, Ramireddy, though, for deciding differently. But Domahidi does question another friend who she says talked up his childhood asthma to qualify for a shot. Domahidi thinks he crossed an ethical line, even though he lives with a parent who’s immunocompromised: “That’s like, a little better in my mind, but I don’t know.”