The College switched two students to remote status for violating COVID rules. Now, one has returned to campus.

Arrington Luck and Rebecca Tauber

When a Junior Advisor (JA) moved back to campus in late August, they thought they had followed the College’s rules for the five- to seven-day in-room quarantine the College required each student to complete. 

According to the JA — who chose to remain anonymous for this story — they drove themselves to campus and took their first of two COVID-19 tests required to complete the in-room quarantine process. They drove their car to their dorm, moved their belongings in and drove their car to one of the student parking lots. They then began walking to their dorm to begin their quarantine. 

But while walking from the parking lot to their dorm, they stopped at two other dorms to test whether, unlike in past years, their ID card would bar them from swiping into dorms other than their own. They said they had no intention of entering the two buildings. After their ID card did not work, they went to their room and began quarantine.

Later that day, they received an email from the College informing them that they had broken their in-room quarantine, and that they had to leave campus and switch to remote status within 24 hours. Campus Safety and Security (CSS) can track which IDs swipe where and had picked up that the student had swiped their card on two other dorms while returning from the parking lot. 

The student’s fellow JAs started a petition advocating for them to stay on campus and the student appealed the decision to Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom, but the appeal was denied. The student drove home the following day.

Sandstrom defined the incident as a violation of in-room quarantine. “Breaking quarantine is a broad category that includes anything that deviates from going immediately to quarantine with your belongings, and remaining in your room until you have cleared 2 negative tests,” she wrote in an email to the Record. “The only exceptions include going to the bathroom (one person at a time while in quarantine), picking up meals from the delivery table in the building, and going to the testing center for a second test according to appointment or request from the testing site.”

Now, the College is allowing the student to return. This student, who declined to comment for this story, was one of two that the College switched to remote status for violating quarantine. It is not known what prompted the College to switch other student to remote status, though Sandstrom did note that both involved violating in-room quarantine, as opposed to other public health protocols after that initial quarantine. It is also unknown whether the other student will be invited to return as well.

“I can’t comment on any specific student situations, but I can speak to our approach overall,” Sandstrom said regarding the student’s return. “We developed our guidelines with an eye toward creating as safe a community as possible, while also maintaining our values around fairness and equity. Given that these were new rules and sanctions created in the novel context of a pandemic, we decided we’d review our decisions after a month or so, to make sure that they were working in practice in the ways we anticipated at the outset.”

Following the initial departure, Sandstrom noted in an email to the Record that a transition to remote status is a non-disciplinary response and will not show up on students’ academic records. She added that it will only be used for violating public health protocol. “A transition to remote learning is only being used in response to significant violations of public health guidelines and is considered non-disciplinary in that it won’t appear on a disciplinary record at all,” she said. “This won’t be used for anything other than public health guidelines, including violating quarantine or isolation, traveling, hosting visitors [or] not getting testing regularly,” she said. 

The switch to remote status generated initial concern amongst JAs and the broader student body. Some worried that they too would be asked to leave campus for what they saw as an honest mistake, while members of the JA class expressed their disapproval at losing another on-campus JA given the increasing number of JAs taking time off or choosing to take classes remotely. 

In a survey sent to 500 random students at the start of September shortly after the student’s departure, 53 percent of 131 on-campus respondents said they felt concerned about being switched to remote status for unknowingly violating a rule. Twenty-three percent said they were somewhat concerned, and another 23 percent said they were not concerned.

In an email to JAs following the student’s departure, Sandstrom emphasized that while she had heard concerns with regards to students, she had also received student testimonies that emphasize the necessity of a rigid campus health policy in order for them to feel comfortable in their return. “The advent of a highly infectious and potentially deadly virus requires stricter enforcement of the rules and less tolerance for exceptions than we’d practice in non-pandemic times,” she said.

President Maud S. Mandel also sent an all-campus email on Aug. 27 in the wake of this high-profile departure. In her email, addressed to all members of the College community, she stressed the importance of obeying the COVID-19 restrictions implemented by the College. 

“If quarantine isn’t fully honored, this system fails. If a family member enters your dorm to help you move in; if you take a walk around campus before going into quarantine; if you travel out of Williamstown without permission, you’re incrementally increasing risk to everyone,” Mandel wrote. “Despite our desire to be forgiving, a ‘no harm, no foul’ philosophy simply isn’t possible given the rate at which covid-19 is spreading on college campuses.”

Yet, in the weeks following the student’s departure, the College’s enforcement of COVID-19 policies as students exited the in-room quarantine phase has been inconsistent. Despite CSS reports of over 40 students playing beer pong in a gathering of over 120 people and reports of JAs feeling like enforcers among first-years violating distancing rules, no other students have been switched to remote status for breaking the College’s COVID policies.