What the fall semester’s health guidelines will look like — and how the College will maintain them

Irene Loewenson and Annie Lu

(Graphic by Nigel Jaffe/The Williams Record.)

Though students have been invited back to Williamstown for the fall semester, the campus that awaits them will be dramatically different from the one they have known.

No longer can students linger with their friends over dinner in the dining halls. (All meals will be to-go.) No longer can they travel to big cities during Reading Period. (On-campus students must stay in Berkshire County, with limited exceptions.) No longer can they attend massive, sweaty parties on Hoxsey St. — or even go to smaller, less sweaty parties without social distance and masks. (Students must stay six feet apart from everyone but their suitemates.)

Whether students will actually abide by the College’s guidelines is another matter. But in all-campus announcements, student town halls and interviews with the Record, members of the administration have expressed hope that students who decide to return will follow what President Maud S. Mandel termed “best public health practices.”

“The goal is not for people to think of these as rules, but as a way to keep their friends safe and the campus open,” Mandel said. “If we have a huge series of outbreaks of COVID that we can’t manage, then we won’t be able to stay open.”

‘The health of our community is worth valuing’

Before coming to campus, students will have to sign the “Community Health Commitment,” a kind of contract affirming their compliance with public health rules. Of course, any contract needs some enforcement and accountability mechanism. As for what that will look like, though, the commitment provides few details.

“I’m very reluctant to have students coming in and be like, ‘What can I get away with?’” Mandel said. “It’s so not the right way to be looking at this… It’s not me forcing you to wear a mask — it’s that you want to wear a mask, because you believe that the health of our community is worth valuing.”

The main guideline that the College expects students to follow is that they must remain six feet apart from everyone except for the up to five other people in their housing group who will share a bathroom, known as a “pod.” In all public indoor spaces, and in situations with people not in their pods, students are supposed to wear masks and keep a six-foot distance from others.

“We’re going to have to finesse some of the details here … but I think that the guidelines are going to be to err on the side of being safe in situations that are in the gray area,” Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom said. “We’re going to recommend wearing a mask rather not wearing a mask.” Students who feel that the guidelines would be too limiting should consider enrolling remotely or taking time off, Sandstrom said.

These rules apply even to students who are in romantic relationships. Sandstrom acknowledged the frustration that students may feel about the lack of physical intimacy with partners who are in different pods.

“Going for walks and spending time together outside is something you can do while still maintaining the health guidelines, but of course I realize that this is really limited,” she said. “And that’s where we are — the guidelines are what they are.”  

Some students have indicated that they intend to violate these guidelines, however. In a Record survey with 685 student respondents, 63 students (9 percent) said they plan to return to campus in the fall and are in romantic relationships with other students who will also be on campus. Of these, 57 percent said they would be in different pods and do not plan to maintain social distancing, while 16 percent said they would be in different pods and do plan to maintain social distancing. Only 27 percent planned to be in the same pods as their partners. 

In the free-response section of the survey, several respondents expressed skepticism that students would follow the rules about social distancing, in romantic relationships and in general.

“I feel that some students will likely not take the rules seriously, which is unfortunate because I think the College has been well tempered and had good execution throughout this situation,” wrote Roxanne Dean MacKinnon ’23, who added in parentheses, “bias: my family is financially stable and I am white.”

Only 45 percent of all respondents, single or otherwise, who are enrolling on campus said they planned to maintain at least a six-foot distance from all people not in their pods. Twenty-seven percent said they planned to see one or more non-podmates without being six feet apart, while 28 percent said they were unsure.

Professor of Philosophy Bojana Mladenović, who co-chaired the working group on reopening the campus, said that even though most students are at a lower risk relative to older adults for getting seriously ill from COVID-19, they should follow public health guidelines to protect vulnerable populations at the College and in Williamstown.

“We’re going to put faith in the ability of our colleagues and our students to do the right thing and to always err on the side of caution — not because of themselves, but because they are playing with the risk for other people,” she said.

Consequences for violating the health guidelines

Administrators have expressed hope that students will remind each other to follow the guidelines. In particular, Sandstrom noted, the College will ask student leaders — including Junior Advisors (JAs), House Coordinators (HCs), team captains and heads of student organizations — to “step in and play a role in helping lead their peers in terms of healthy behavior.” 

This role seems to be an informal, educational one, however. After JAs raised concerns to Dean of First-Year Students Chris Sewell ’05 about their role in disciplining first-years, Sewell told them via email that “JAs should not be sitting in the role of disciplinarian.” 

“Neither HCs or JAs signed up to be in that position and it is not something that is germa[ne] to the Williams College experience,” he continued. “Right now, we are in the process of identifying staff and faculty who can serve in this role on campus.”

Students who repeatedly violate the guidelines will first have to speak with administrators, who will remind them of their expectations. A student who continues to break the rules may be told to move off campus and switch to remote learning, according to Sandstrom. Especially flagrant rule-breaking will lead to more serious repercussions.

“If you host a huge party or do something else egregious, then you may well face actual disciplinary consequences,” Sandstrom added.

Despite the College’s wishes, it seems likely that some students will attend parties. Eleven percent of respondents to the Record survey who plan to enroll on campus said they intended on attending parties outside of their pod, and 42 percent said they were unsure if they would do so, though the survey did not specify what qualifies as a party.

Given the national outrage about racism in policing, and given that many students of color — Black and Brown students in particular — have criticized Campus Safety and Security (CSS) for what they have characterized as disparate treatment at the hands of officers, students have expressed concern about how CSS plans to make enforcement of public health guidelines equitable. Director of CSS Dave Boyer said that CSS, which underwent an external review last fall, has been undergoing bias training in recent months. He noted that he has met with senior staff to discuss changes to the department, including decreasing CSS’s role in residential issues. 

“I really want this to come from within CSS, not mandated from the top down,” he said of changes to the department.

Sandstrom and Boyer both indicated that CSS’s role in maintaining the guidelines will be limited. In general, Sandstrom said, CSS will be less involved in responding to residential life issues next year — public-health-related and otherwise. Because CSS officers make up about 1 percent of the campus population, Boyer said, “our plan is to do 1 percent of the enforcement” of public health guidelines. A large part of CSS’s role will be to provide masks to people who have forgotten them, according to Boyer.

“If someone’s creating a situation by which they’re jeopardizing the possibility of us having a complete semester, I really feel like they’re doing something that is worthy of further action,” Boyer said. “In that type of situation, we’re not going to go in to just hand out face masks.”

Sandstrom stressed that the College did not want the public health guidelines to become a disciplinary issue.

“What we really hope is that these conversations and reminders happen from peer to peer — that it really is a grassroots, ground-up attempt for everyone to be working hard to allow us to do the thing we want to do, which is stay here,” she said.

Campus life in the new normal

Given that the guidelines in the Community Health Commitment are largely general, many students have been wondering about more specifics — particularly about pods.

“The rules for interactions among members of the same pod are as they would be in a family,” Mladenović said. Podmates will be able to eat and talk together without masks and without social distancing. 

She added, “Do we think that getting really physically very close is a good idea? No. But is it going to be sustainable to prohibit that? No again.”

Campus housing can accommodate “up to 1600 students in single rooms, with no more than six students sharing a bathroom,” according to the report of the Working Group on Returning for Fall 2020. The report states that the working group expects around 1,500 students to return to campus, in which case all students would be housed in singles.

Sixty-six percent of Record survey respondents indicated they planned to enroll and live on campus (not including the 4 percent planning to live off-campus in Williamstown), and 12 percent said they were not sure. Based on these results, and depending on how many of the unsure respondents enroll on campus, the College might expect between 1,330 and 1,570 students to live in the dorms.

First-years will still live in Mission Park, Williams Hall and Sage Hall. Senior Associate Dean of Campus Life Doug Schiazza said the College has not yet decided how pods and entries will work in these dorms. The College would “potentially think about allowing JAs to pull people into the pod with them and their frosh similar to that of an HC,” Sewell told JAs. “While not a perfect solution and we would have to think about the pros/cons of this model, it is something that people are willing to entertain.”

Students who have tested positive for COVID-19 will move to the Center for Development Economics residence hall, located near the Rte. 2 traffic circle, for isolation. Those who have come into close contact with them will quarantine in the Dodd Circle houses.

Per the College’s public health guidelines, students may not interact closely with anyone outside their pod or invite those people into their rooms. Accordingly, the only residence hall a given student will have swipe access to is their own. There will also be a no-visitors policy, meaning that students will not be able to entertain family or friends from other schools on campus. 

By default, student groups should prepare to meet virtually, Sandstrom said. If an organization needs to meet in person, it would have to submit a form to the Office of Campus Life, outlining how it intends to engage in in-person activity while following the College’s health guidelines. Sports will not be able to compete or travel in the fall, but they may practice in socially distanced ways.

As usual, non-first-year students will be allowed to keep cars on campus. Students will, however, be prohibited from traveling outside of Berkshire County while they are living on campus. “When in doubt, we’re going to err on the side of caution,” Mandel said of the rule. 

“Travel is one of the areas where we’re still getting an evolving set of instructions from the governor and from the state,” she added. 

Students will be allowed to leave the county only in extenuating circumstances and will have to let the Dean’s Office know in advance. “We’d work with them to figure out how to do that safely,” Sandstrom said. “Depending on the situation, it may well require quarantine when they come back to campus.”

Public transportation and other situations in which a six-foot distance requirement cannot be observed “will be problematic,” Mladenović noted. For that reason, classes will go online after Thanksgiving to allow students to spend time with their family and friends but not risk bringing the virus back to campus.

Students can also expect significant changes to how and where they eat. Similar to the system for students who were approved to remain after campus closed this March, dining halls will allow carry-out meals only, in the form of a served buffet and pre-packaged food items. Lee Snack Bar, ’82 Grill and Grab ’n Go will “will be mobile ordering only through the GET App,” Director of Dining Temesgen Araya said. All existing dining facilities will be open to students except for Mission Park, which will be used as the production kitchen.

Dining hours will also be very different, “driven by staffing needs in our dining halls to adjust to the new service models,” Araya said. Whitmans’ will be the only location open for late night and will close at 11 p.m. The ’82 Grill will be open only for lunch on weekdays, with the staff assisting with Whitmans’ during dinner. Lee Snack Bar will serve lunch and a midday meal after lunch on weekdays. 

Limiting though the on-campus guidelines may be, the majority of students approve of the College’s plan for the fall. Seventy-one percent of respondents to the Record survey said they approved of the plan, with 6 percent disapproving and 23 percent unsure.

Isabel Frey Ribeiro ’23 said she was just grateful that all students were invited back to campus.

“I know some of the restrictions will, of course, be difficult to live with and uphold, but we knew that would be the case from the very beginning,” she said. “All in all, compared to the plans I’ve seen from other schools, the College’s plan seems relatively well thought-out and fair. I can’t wait to go back.”

12:22 p.m. on Tuesday, July 7: This article has been updated to include information about the number of students who have indicated they intend to enroll on campus.