At a rural New England college, a COVID-19 outbreak put 287 students and 11 staff and faculty members in quarantine and isolation over the past week, and forced the entire campus into lockdown. As of yet, this description doesn’t apply to Williams — and we must keep it that way. The outbreak, which took place at Dartmouth, should serve as a cautionary tale for the Williams community of what could happen here as a result of gatherings like the massive indoor party held on Friday.
As we wrote in our editorial on Sunday, we as a College community — and especially those who attended the party — must be extra vigilant in these upcoming days to prevent such a catastrophe.
The New York Times reported that more than 530,000 cases of COVID have been linked to colleges and universities since the beginning of the pandemic, with more than 120,000 reported since January of this year. The Times linked more than 100 student and employee deaths to these cases.
While the College has accounted for only 37 of those cases, the party held at Wood House holds the potential for significant damage to the health of the Williamstown community. The party was not only in direct violation of the College’s rules and community health commitment — it was also illegal. Massachusetts’ reopening Phase III rules, effective as of Feb. 8, limit indoor social events to no more than 10 attendees, with required face coverings and six feet of distance between each individual. Obviously, none of these rules were followed.
To make sure nothing like this happens again, we call for increased accountability, enforcement, and transparency.
In order to move forward from this incident, the culprits must be held accountable and removed from campus. Living on campus during the pandemic is a privilege, not a right, and the students who attended the party have an obligation to both self-quarantine and turn themselves in. Only then can the community begin to heal and repair the trust that has been broken between students, faculty, staff, and Williamstown residents.
At this point, we cannot make any concrete statements about what groups of students attended the party. However, we do know that by partying during a pandemic — aware that the consequences could include removal from campus, not to mention contracting COVID — these students demonstrated their privilege. Meanwhile, their fellow students, from immunocompromised peers to students who do not have stable housing options outside of the College dormitories, have much to lose from their irresponsible behavior. The students who attended the party also put Campus Safety and Security (CSS) officers, custodians, professors, Dining staff, and Williamstown residents at heightened risk.
We call on the administration to disqualify students who attended the party and who do not turn themselves in to the deans from holding certain leadership positions for next year, such as Junior Advisor, Residential Director, and Housing Coordinator. These students are expected to model appropriate behavior for residential communities, and attending this party and then choosing to not come forward about it was certainly not appropriate. Caring for the College community’s well-being is a crucial characteristic for anyone serving in residential leadership roles, regardless of public health regulations next fall.
On the whole, the College administration’s handling of this specific party is commendable, especially the chance it is giving students to turn themselves in and avoid the full disciplinary process. It is both an appropriate response and gives students the opportunity to do right by their community and return to campus in the fall in good standing.
Nevertheless, while the majority of the responsibility for this event ought to fall on the irresponsible group of students, the College administration missed the opportunity to send a strong, consistent message about the seriousness of the community health commitment during the fall semester. In the fall, the Record reported on a number of gatherings that were broken up by CSS without consequences for those involved, one of which was even a 50-person event at Wood House. At the time, CSS opened an investigation into who attended the party, but it is unclear what that investigation entailed, and the College confirmed that no students ultimately faced disciplinary action or removal from campus for attending that party. The fall semester’s inconsistent enforcement of rules likely emboldened the students at Wood House to behave recklessly.
Now, the Record board echoes its call from October, asking that the College hold the student body accountable by breaking up large gatherings while making concerted efforts not to overpolice students, especially for smaller gatherings. This concern is particularly salient among students of color, and particularly Black students who have raised concerns about implicit bias; this history must be kept in mind during the enforcement of these rules and potential increased CSS presence.
As the College moves forward in its process of contact tracing and taking punitive action, we ask for greater transparency as to the investigation’s methodology and the results of such methodology.
In an email to the Record, Director of CSS Dave Boyer wrote, “CSS is working with [building] access records, several witness statements, team rosters, numerous phone tips, [and] invites to the party” to track party attendants. Boyer and Sandstrom declined to comment on whether the College is employing WiFi data in its investigation. We are troubled by the administration’s unwillingness to provide more information about its methods, thus leaving the campus in the dark during an emotionally charged moment.
Furthermore, the Record board continues to be frustrated by the College’s lack of transparency regarding disciplinary action taken against students who broke COVID-19 guidelines, including those who did so in fall. Though Sandstrom told the Record in an email that six students were transferred to remote learning and two faced disciplinary consequences last semester, this information was not made easily accessible to the College community. Meanwhile, schools like Middlebury have publicly available data about the number of students who have faced disciplinary action as a result of breaking public health guidelines. Had such information been publicized at the College as it is at peer institutions, organizers and attendants of large gatherings such as the Wood party might have been dissuaded by evidence of the College’s past response to similar infractions. Greater transparency from the College would greatly benefit not only the investigation conducted by CSS but also the Williams community as a whole.
What comes next
It is possible that a week or two from now, we will have not seen a spike in COVID cases on campus. We may never be able to precisely quantify the public health ramifications of the Wood party.
However, even if our community remains unscathed, we still must learn from the weekend’s events. The party at Wood House was a grave and potentially harmful mistake that has had massive implications for student life and College policy. For the sake of the College community, the Record asks students to hold both themselves and each other accountable; the administration to send a strong, consistent message about the consequences of COVID-19 guideline infractions; and CSS and the deans to provide greater transparency in their investigations and disciplinary actions.
All of us should aspire towards a campus culture where such egregious events do not occur in the first place — and all of us must put in the necessary work to create it.
Those with information about the Wood party are encouraged to contact the Record through its anonymous tip form or by emailing [email protected]. The Record will grant full anonymity to any party attendee who speaks with us.
This editorial represents the opinion of the majority of the Record editorial board.