A call to students and the administration on social distancing

Editorial Board

120 unmasked students gathered near Poker Flats on Sept. 8. 

No distancing. No masks.

While community-spreading within our campus has not yet happened, our networks of friends, families and communities within Williamstown and across the world are counting on us to take this pandemic seriously. And the prevalence of large gatherings shows how we still have much to work on.

So many are riding on the success of the fall semester: from staff who have added many responsibilities and hours to keep this campus running, to students whose family members are facing uncertainties at home, to the residents of Williamstown who have opened their home to the College. 

In the face of such contexts, students and the College administration have not done their parts enough to protect the safety and wellbeing of all in the Berkshires. We at the Record want to further urge our community to recognize that COVID-19 does not impact people equally. Ultimately, the ability to break community guidelines is steeped in privilege and is indicative of the broader inequities at Williams College. People of color, especially Black Americans, face an increased risk of hospitalization and death due to COVID. People who are immuno-compromised or have underlying conditions have to live with the fear that COVID could cut their lives short. The lack of personal care that some in our community have towards these restrictions, and the ability to choose to violate distancing is steeped in the lack of accountability that many Williams students hold towards an endangered community and something that needs to be addressed in any conversation about COVID-19. 

We first wanted to first address our fellow students. Right now, we have fewer cases than we could have had, had we only been a little less lucky at the beginning of the semester. We don’t want to ruin the good luck that we’ve had so far by further risking the spread of COVID on campus. This is not to say that COVID is not present in the Berkshires: Pine Cobble School has shifted to remote learning last week following two positive cases, and Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield has experienced multiple cases as well. Williamstown has seen new cases. Those students who are holding large, non-distanced outdoor parties and who are blatantly violating distancing and mask guidelines are damaging both the school and the broader community.

It’s very easy for us as a publication, and as a community at large, to condemn these large gatherings due to their visceral negative effects on the campus community. It’s easy to differentiate oneself from those who are partying and skirt responsibility for our shortcomings. But we at the Record believe keeping smaller group interactions socially distanced is equally important. These smaller violations – say, having a non-masked meeting with a friend when it violates community guidelines, or going just one or two people above the gathering limit – add up. 

What we are calling for is for students to be mindful of the risks inherent in these violations and to be more intentional about following distancing rules. We are calling on students to take accountability for themselves and their friends and to ensure that to the best of their ability that they are following the community guidelines. Even though this might be tedious and somewhat difficult, we think that the responsibility that we have to the broader community makes the inconvenience of these restrictions well worth it.  

Knowing that each member of the community has unique responsibilities in keeping the Berkshires safe, we feel that the College administration has not implemented an effective approach to keeping students accountable for blatantly disregarding social distancing policies at the College. Indeed, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom aptly noted in a recent email to students, “… too many students are failing to abide by our rules on gatherings.” But it remains unclear whose responsibility it is to actually enforce social distancing when students will not amongst themselves. As a result, this responsibility has unfairly fallen upon Junior Advisors (JAs), which harms a necessary sense of trust and mutual understanding between JAs and first-years that informs the success of the entry system. Furthermore, putting JAs who are unpaid in an enforcement position blurs the line between JA and residential advisor. Additionally, many enforcement procedures have been placed on Campus Safety and Security (CSS), a team that is not well equipped to handle the unique challenges that the pandemic poses. 

In some ways, it almost feels as if senior administration does not have a sense of how pervasive gatherings well over groups of 10 have become. In any case, the problem is clear: The bar for abiding by COVID social distancing rules is far too low. 

Having students, staff and faculty keep each other accountable is – understandably – not adequate. Peer-to-peer accountability alone, while important to uphold, disproportionately burdens JAs into an enforcement role, even as women and BIPOC JAs contend with inequitable power dynamics and the emotional labor that results.

There are several ways that the College can follow through on the commitments it had each individual sign in an effort to preserve public health. First, the College should make it clear that hosting large parties is grounds for asking the student to go remote. Secondly, a strike system should be set for going to parties that have more than 10 people. Those who repeatedly break social distancing should be recorded to keep track of strike systems. 

Enforcing these rules is a complicated matter, given that there remains few roles built into College life that can adequately fill such a role. Given these limitations, the best solution seems to be a collaboration between students and CSS, tied with increased responsibilities for Residential Life Advisors (RLAs), to have productive conversations about the importance of adhering to social distancing rules. RLAs must play a larger role as a liaison between CSS, who would have to report large gatherings – a primary area of violations – and students. 

Instead of having cases of violations be evaluated solely by the deans, a group of staff, faculty and students – much like the structure of the Honor and Disciplinary committee – should ensure that disciplinary processes are as transparent and fair as possible. 

Students must take the public-health rules more seriously. The College, in turn, must do a better job of enforcing these rules. The safety of our community depends on it.

This editorial represents the opinion of the majority of the Record’s editorial board.