Rising coronavirus concerns affect various facets of campus life

Jeongyoon Han, Joey Fox, and Sonia Prasad

As part of a project led by AASiA, students at the College signed a pledge of solidarity with Asians facing racism globally because of the coronavirus.

As the number of reported cases of COVID-19 (also known as coronavirus) has increased to five in Berkshire County and over 1,000 nationwide, the College is scrambling to implement academic and administrative measures to maintain the safety of the College community.

“This is an incredibly complicated situation,” said Jim Reische, chief communications officer of the College. “It’s evolving into a lot of different directions at once….We’re just meeting constantly, talking multiple times a day, saying, what does the situation look like now, what’s the next step we can take and what are the next couple of steps beyond that that might be necessary.”

Because of how quickly the situation is developing, some of the measures the College has implemented in the past few days alone include opening campus during spring break to all students in need of housing, launching a website to update the College on the issue and ending College-funded international travel and campus events with over 100 atendees through April 30.

Many members of the College community have sent feedback amidst concerns of the impacts that coronavirus has had in the area, particularly for students worried that the College may ask students to leave campus should classes be cancelled. Reische said on Tuesday that the College had not yet come to a broader decision on its plan for the remaining weeks of the semester, but he was careful to note that the administration was considering many different options.

“I know folks on campus are really buzzing right now,” Reische said. “[President Maud S. Mandel is] hearing from a lot of students, families, faculty, staff, even some alumni who have different points of view on this and are sharing them with her.” 

Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom insisted that as College administrators make decisions on next steps, the top priority is campus health and academic continuity. 

Previews has been cancelled due to a new policy prohibiting events with an attendance of over 100.

“You want to make sure that everybody is able to continue to get credit for this semester,” she said. “We don’t need to rush and close down something; we’re not going to do that unless we think that there is a really good reason it would protect health and safety or academic continuity.”

Administration makes changes for spring break

With the goals of health and academic continuity in mind, the College has announced changes to its spring break policy to allow more students to stay on campus in an effort to limit the number of individuals travelling to affected areas. In an all-campus email last Wednesday, Sandstrom informed students that “you may stay on campus over spring break if you choose, and dining options will be provided. In fact, we strongly encourage you to consider this option.”

Linked to Sandstrom’s email was a form allowing students intending to remain on campus to register their plans. As of Monday, 102 people had signed up through the form; on average, between 200 and 300 students usually stay on campus during spring break, though many of those students likely had not filled out a form this far in advance.

The College intends to make several adjustments to handle the potentially higher number of students choosing to remain on campus. “All the dorms will be open, so nobody’s going to be displaced,” Sandstrom said, in comparison to previous spring breaks, when some dorms closed and some residents were required to move to other dorms temporarily.

The College will also modify dining and other services from standard spring break procedures. “Typically we only have one dining hall open, and we want to know how many people might be here so we can make plans,” Reische said. “We’ve got staff who are already going to be away, so we’ve got some balancing to do there. And we’re working on other services that are normally closed to see what we can provide.”

International travel restricted

In her all-campus email sent to the College community on Monday, Mandel announced that, until April 30, the College would no longer sponsor any international travel, “with a possible extension beyond that time if it becomes necessary to ensure campus health.” Mandel explained that the decision “is partly to limit the risk to our community, and partly because all of us as members of society have an ethical obligation to avoid activities that increase the risk of contagion.”

“What we don’t want to do is sponsor conferences that students will go on with faculty, or those kinds of events,” Sandstrom said.

Reische noted, however, that the College cannot prevent anyone in the College community from travelling on their own, nor has it banned College-funded domestic travel. “People’s personal travel, we don’t have control over,” he said. “We can advise against travel in general, but in terms of what the College will pay for or finance, we’re asking that people not go abroad during that period of time.”

Sandstrom added that the College encourages all students, faculty and staff to register their travel, both international and domestic. “We do really want people to register their travel,” she said. “That would be helpful.” A link to the registration form can be found in Sandstrom’s March 4 all-campus email.

Campus events capped at 100 people

Until April 30, the College has also capped campus events at a maximum of 100 people. Furthermore, the College has recommended that individuals maintain a minimum distance of six feet from each other.  While dining halls and classes will remain unaffected by this change, several events have already been cancelled.

“We’re more concerned with events that bring people in from the outside,” Sandstrom said.

Previews cancelled

In an all-campus email sent out on Monday, Mandel announced the cancellation of admissions events including tours, info sessions, overnights and Previews, with the goal of minimizing contact between crowds of 100 or more. Sulgi Lim ’06, director of admission, wrote in an email to the Record that, while “the decision was a difficult one,” it was made with health and safety as key priorities. 

Lim wrote that the decision to cancel Previews was “made by Maud’s COVID-19 response executive team, in consultation with Provost Dukes Love and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Liz Creighton.” 

The cancellation could potentially impact enrollment decisions for the class of 2024. “We have no way to predict what the impact on yield might be, but we know, of course, how important it is for students to see and experience Williams firsthand,” wrote Lim. 

This raises the question of how exactly the admissions office will provide prospective students with information and opportunities to explore the College. “We’re still in the early stages of planning,” Lim wrote, “but will be prepared to share a range of opportunities with admitted students next week.” 

Until then, there are still ways for students to engage with the College from afar. Under the Admissions and Financial Aid section of the College’s website, there are several resources to help students get started. “Prospective students and students admitted during Early Decision and the QuestBridge College Match have been encouraged to: Check out [a video] for an introduction to all things Williams; [visit] our website [which] is a great starting point for learning about academic and student life …follow us on Instagram to get a glimpse into day-to-day life on campus; [and] connect with a current student to ask questions about what it’s like to call this place home,” wrote Lim.  

“While this year’s yield activities will look very different…. We’re optimistic they’ll be impactful and meaningful for our admitted students and their families,” she added. 

Cases reported in Berkshires

Currently, there have been no COVID-19 cases reported on campus or in the immediate campus community. However, individuals in several nearby towns have been diagnosed with the virus in recent days.

In Bennington, Vt., which borders Williamstown to the north, an adult tested positive for the virus and has been hospitalized in isolation. The individual is Vermont’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. As of Sunday, they are currently in stable condition, according to the Bennington Banner.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported on Tuesday that there were 91 presumptive cases and one confirmed case of COVID-19 in the state. Five of those reported presumptive cases are in Berkshire County, including at least one in Clarksburg, which borders Williamstown to the east.

New York state has reported 173 cases of the virus as of Tuesday morning. The cases are concentrated in Westchester County in the suburbs of New York City, but two cases have also been confirmed in Saratoga County to the north of Albany.

Reische noted that although “most students on campus aren’t in a high-risk group,” some community members are more vulnerable. “Would our local hospitals and facilities to provide sufficient care for us in an outbreak?” Reische asked. “Would it be fair to ask hem for that help, if it displaced people who had nowhere else to turn?”

Many colleges around the country, including NESCAC schools such as Amherst College and Middlebury College, have decided to shift entirely to online classes after spring break and send students home to reduce the risk of infection on campus. (See “In Other Ivory Towers” on page  4 for more information.)

Students push back against anti-Asian racism

Some students and members of the administration have expressed concerns about the potential for anti-Asian sentiment on campus due to the virus’ origins in China. Last week, Asian American Students in Action (AASiA) organized a solidarity pledge in which students were invited to sign a poster. The pledge, which declared “solidarity with Asians worldwide who face racism because of the Coronavirus,” gathered hundreds of signatures.

Rachel Jiang ’23, one of the pledge’s co-organizers, said in an email that she was spurred to create the pledge by the anti-Asian prejudice she saw amidst the outbreak. “After following the news, social media, and talking to my mom, who was just quarantined because she flew back a month ago from Shanghai, I’ve realized that racism isn’t ‘rare’ or ‘extreme,’ it’s everywhere, and has been exacerbated as the coronavirus/COVID-19 spreads,” Jiang said.

“I haven’t noticed the impacts of racism on campus but I saw two disturbing videos on Instagram (spread by many of our peers) where Asians were physically attacked,” she continued.

In an all-campus email sent last Wednesday, Sandstrom addressed these concerns. “We want to note that there have been reports in the media of people being targeted for harassment or violence in response to the outbreak — especially people identified as Asian,” the email read. “We’re not aware of any such incidents at Williams, but if you experience bias or know someone who has, please report it via the Bias Incident Reporting form so the College can take appropriate action.”

Students react to potential campus life changes

While the College has not made any decisions on cancelling in-person classes, some students have become worried at the prospect of having to leave the College, as over 50 peer institutions have already asked their students to do so. Reische said that the administration has “received a very high level of student feedback via emails to Maud and senior staff and submissions to the coronavirus comment form. Many were passionate, carefully-argued and deeply moving.”

“Many students are worried about not being able to re-enter the U.S. until the coronavirus situation improves significantly or being quarantined on arrival,” Shreyam Misra ’21, an international student and member of the International Students group at the College, wrote to the Record. “This may mean students are unable to work/participate in internships over the summer — something they may have been relying on to fund their education.”

If the College were to cancel classes, the impacts would be great on international students, who may have to forgo their ability to remain in the U.S. if the College closes dorms. 

“It goes without saying that many international students have no home in the US aside from Williams; however, many students don’t have another home either,” Shreyas Rajesh ’22, an international student, wrote in an email. “There is ‘no base’ for them — Williams is their place of residence. In essence, I hope the College will provide housing and food for international students, because the consequences of being forced to leave Williams would be devastating for many.”

Max Stein ’21 created a petition on change.org titled “Let students stay on campus.” As of print time, the petition has 350 signatures. 

Stein said he worries about the consequences if the College were to follow suit of other schools by implementing online classes and having students leave campus. 

“It will be an absolute disaster logistically and put a major asterisk on our transcripts with no proper recognition or recompense from the college,” Stein said. 

Sam Jocas ’21 concurred, saying that cancelling in-person classes in efforts to prevent the spread of the virus would have minimal benefits.

“Who [would such a policy] help exactly? Certainly not students who will be getting on planes, navigating airports to go home. Certainly not students who will travel to their homes in crowded cities. Certainly not students who have a minimal chance of contracting the virus (and an even smaller chance of serious illness from the virus) but are forced to go home to unstable/unsavory/difficult homes (or lack thereof),” Jocas wrote in an email.  

College launches COVID-19 website

On Friday, Reische sent an email to College students, faculty and staff announcing the launch of a new website dedicated to providing information on COVID-19 and the College’s plans. The website “explains how Williams is working to prevent infection on campus and mitigate potential direct or indirect impacts,” its front page reads. “Williams will continue to prioritize people’s health and safety and the College’s academic mission. Decisions will be made and actions taken with those concerns foremost in mind.”

The site includes information and FAQs on the College’s monitoring procedures, study abroad programs, athletic events and personal health. 

Also detailed on the page is the College’s decision-making structure, which the site says is “in keeping with widely-accepted principles of emergency management.” According to the site, an executive team consisting of Mandel, Klass, Reische, Chief of Staff Keli Gail and others has been meeting twice daily to assess the situation and discuss future action regarding COVID-19.

In addition to this executive team, the site details the formation of four working groups: the academic group, which will examine COVID-19’s impact on the academic curriculum; the business continuity group, which is tasked with ensuring “preparedness and resilience in college-wide administrative systems like payroll, student accounts and purchasing”; the communications group, which will work to develop a communications strategy; and the operations group, which is charged with maintaining day-to-day College functions including housing, dining and transportation. Each of the working groups consists of between three and seven staff members.

Athletics alters, but does not cancel, spring sports

As of Tuesday evening, the College’s Athletic Department has not announced changes to spring break training trips, but continues to assess the situation through communication with NCAA officials and consider alternative options for teams. Several spring season sports teams are currently scheduled to travel to various locations across the U.S., including Myrtle Beach, S.C. for crew and San Diego, Calif. for tennis and track and field. 

Games and practices will continue as usual for now, unless cancelled by opposing institutions, although spectators are barred from attending several away games in the coming days. Instead, fans can watch the matches online. Coaches and captains have had discussions with student-athletes on best health practices while travelling to away games and having close contact to athletes from other schools at meets, Director of Athletics Lisa Melendy said.

Winter teams slated to compete in NCAA tournaments in the coming weeks are continuing practices as of Tuesday. On Tuesday afternoon, 27 members of the track and field team began a two-day bus trip to North Carolina, where they will be competing at Nationals through the weekend. The team is taking precautions to limit contact with the virus, avoiding large group gatherings and ensuring uncontaminated meals for athletes, Melendy said.

“Games will not include handshakes with opponents, we have cancelled post-game receptions with food to avoid close contact with groups of people,” Melendy wrote in an email to the Record.  “We have moved some travel from planes to buses. We, along with admissions, will not host prospective student athletes visiting campus.”

 Study abroad complicated further 

With COVID-19’s effects still felt hardest abroad, many students studying internationally have either returned home or will soon face the prospect of doing so. Many students studying in Italy, which has had the second-highest number of cases globally after China, have returned to the U.S. to continue their programs remotely (“Italy study abroad programs affected by spread of coronavirus,” March 4, 2020). Students who planned to study abroad in China either did not leave the U.S., or returned soon after their programs began, and started the spring semester at the College (“College advises students studying in China to leave, citing coronavirus concerns,” Jan. 29, 2020). 

Meanwhile, several students in other European countries told the Record that their programs have restricted their international movement and signaled that cancellation may be imminent. 

Amelia Jamond ’21, who is studying in Paris with Hamilton in France, said that though her program has yet to be cancelled, the option is growing increasingly likely. “The director [of the program] said it’s a matter of when, not if, it’s canceled,” Jamond told the Record. “He’s hoping that it keeps running until the  scheduled end in May but that’s looking less likely and the second best option would be to stay open until April break.”

Jamond added that program participants already face restrictions on travel both to and from the program. “We were also asked to strongly caution any visitors coming from the U.S. to reconsider visits.”

Grant Swonk ’21, who is studying in Barcelona with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), said that his program has cancelled classes for two weeks. “My program states that it is working on ensuring that we earn our term credits, and that this will be done online,” he said. Swonk said that he currently intends to remain in Barcelona assuming that his program resumes after two weeks. If not, he plans on returning to the U.S. and taking online classes.

At the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford University (WEPO), where 26 College students have been studying since the fall, students have similarly been advised to avoid international travel. In an email obtained by the Record, a WEPO administrator “strongly discourage[d] [WEPO students] from traveling to affected areas in Europe for the time being.”

Many faculty adjust classes

With the rapid changes, faculty at the College have begun making adjustments to their own classes and office hours, along with brainstorming how classes can move into an online format if the College decides to cancel classes. 

The move comes at the advisory of the College administration. In an email sent to faculty on March 8, Sandstrom encouraged faculty to reevaluate their curricula and assess how course material and discussions can be facilitated through online measures should classes be canceled.

Some professors have already canceled courses as a preventative measure this week, instead holding office hours via Google Hangout and other platforms. 

Academic departments have already started meeting to address anticipated difficulties of moving classes online.

Chair of the political science department Mark Reinhardt said that remote instruction – if mandated by the College in the future – would impact many of the political science courses, most of which are discussion-based.

“After conferring with colleagues and realizing that none of us has expertise in remote instruction, I have emailed relevant people in the administration, letting them know what our department would want to have in the event that canceling face-to-face classes seems imminent,” he said. 

“We know that what we’d want to do our best to replicate the give and take of a Williams classroom; we also know that we are not the people who know the best available technical resources,” Reinhardt wrote. “Because none of us is an expert in that area, my email suggested that the College provide departments with very short explanatory list of the best options, the best available support materials (documents, web tutorials, etc.), and perhaps some communications about the level of tech support we could reasonably expect in a crisis.”

For other professors, such as Chair of Statistics Richard de Veaux, who teaches large lecture classes, remote instruction would be more manageable. 

“I’ve given many webinars and had online Zoom meetings with 50 people,” de Veaux wrote in an email to the Record. “I think with the screen sharing and online technology that we have we could easily go to an online class situation… Online is never as good as live, but if infection is a serious issue, it’s worth the tradeoff. I would much rather teach students rather than lecture to a screen, but we’ll do what we have to do.”