Editorial: Amid COVID cases and CSS patrols, College’s communication is lacking

Editorial Board

In the days and weeks following the gatherings at Wood and Gladden Houses, students have too often been left scrambling to understand the current public health situation on campus. Students are not being given the transparency we need to feel comfortable in the environment in which we live and work. The administration’s lack of clear communication has forced students to hunt for information needed to make appropriate decisions for our health, to understand how the College conducts investigations into public health guideline violations, and to navigate the increased presence of Campus Safety and Security (CSS) in our living spaces.

Although peer institutions provide additional information on their COVID dashboards beyond test and positive numbers, the College has failed to follow suit. Instead, it has left students, faculty, and staff in the dark regarding quarantine housing numbers — thus leaving people without a clear picture of potential community spread. Additionally, the dashboard lacks any sort of cases-over-time graph. Such a graph is typical at peer institutions, including Amherst, and is key to putting the day’s COVID numbers in proper context.

As evidenced by President Maud S. Mandel’s email after the Gladden gathering, the administration is indeed willing to provide details of community spread. But it did so only days after the fact, allowing rumors and misinformation to abound in the meantime. We are glad that administrators communicated that there was community spread in this case, and that they consistently provide such information to the Record when prompted, but we ask that they always make that information immediately available to the public. 

Moreover, by publishing specifics of quarantine capacity, the College would allow students to gauge the seriousness of the campus’s present COVID situation so they can act accordingly. That may mean students limiting their in-person class or practice attendance, wearing two masks, or avoiding crowded indoor spaces. And community members who are not on-campus students rely heavily on official communications from the College in the absence of word-of-mouth information. We hope that information published in the Record proves helpful for such community members, but our reporting is not in real time. We ask the College to keep the whole community in the know about the COVID situation as it unfolds.

The College has also not communicated guidance for students who have been exposed to COVID but not to the degree required to be considered as a “close contact,” defined as someone who has spent 15 minutes within six feet of a person who recently tested positive. By establishing a more comprehensive COVID protocol, the College will minimize ambiguity, thereby bolstering community confidence and health.

We also ask for increased transparency about the College’s investigative practices. When the Record asked members of the administration in early March about whether they planned to use WiFi data while investigating the Wood party, they declined to answer. However, in an interview as part of Record reporting on possible community spread connected to the Gladden gathering, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom said the College had indeed used WiFi data as part of its investigation of the Wood party. According to the College’s written policy regarding technology users’ rights, the Office of Information Technology (OIT) seeks to protect user privacy but will make exceptions for time-sensitive College business needs, court orders, or in cases involving “the health and/or safety of an individual or group.”

While we appreciate that administrators were eventually open about their use of WiFi data, we wish that they had been so from the time they decided to use WiFi data in the investigation. This belated sharing of information raises concerns about the transparency of College investigations going forward. We believe that the students should know which tools the College is using in their investigations, while the investigations are ongoing. In addition, we believe that the College should further articulate specific guidelines and limitations on its use of WiFi data, including on how it may be used once the pandemic ends. The use of WiFi data to track students is a uniquely invasive enforcement tool, which warrants clear and publicly announced justification. 

And it isn’t just WiFi data that the College has recently taken a keener interest in tracking. In recent weeks, CSS officers have increased their patrolling of residential buildings, particularly on weekend nights. As we have stated in previous editorials, the College should not “overpolice students, especially for smaller gatherings,” and CSS’s primary role in guideline enforcement should be responding to reports of large gatherings. The new weekend patrols are not inherently in conflict with our hopes for the department — but we have several serious concerns about their implementation.

For one, the patrols came with no warning or justification from CSS, meaning that most students remain unaware of what, exactly, officers are doing in their dorms. In addition, Junior Advisors and Housing Coordinators were not made aware of this shift and therefore cannot provide any clarity for their concerned dorm residents. Students expect to see CSS officers in certain places on campus, but their own common room at 11 p.m. on a Saturday is unlikely to be one of them. Once again, the College’s motivations remained opaque.

More alarmingly, there is also evidence that officers have not been following the rules laid out for them. According to Director of CSS Dave Boyer, officers will only go into semi-private spaces such as upper-floor common rooms if they are alerted to “disturbances,” and will otherwise remain in public areas like first-floor kitchens and lounges. One student interviewed by the Record said that officers ventured into their common rooms or traveled through semi-private spaces unprompted, and others shared that CSS’ presence in the dorms made them feel confused and uncomfortable. The distinction between public and semi-private spaces may seem like a technicality. But if officers do not adhere to that distinction, they are functionally able to access all spaces (other than students’ personal rooms) without cause.

This confluence of problems could have real consequences. Many students, particularly BIPOC students, have raised concerns about implicit bias in encounters with CSS, especially when they are in such private settings as dorms. As we noted in 2019, “students have recounted experiences of bias and racism with CSS officers, while CSS officers report an erosion of trust with students” — an erosion of trust that is liable to grow if unexplained and unaccountable patrols continue. 

In future incidents of student gatherings and community spread, we ask that the administration share information about the spread and any investigation clearly and promptly. From here, the College administration should update the COVID dashboard to provide information about the number of students in quarantine and isolation and track community spread, and provide students with guidance about the actions they should take if they have been exposed to a COVID-positive student but are not a close contact. The administration should issue a statement regarding the past and future use of WiFi data. And it should instruct CSS officers to follow the school’s written policy and avoid patrolling non-public spaces whenever possible. We ask for increased transparency from the administration, in the hopes of making this whole community healthier and more secure.

Editorials represent the opinion of the majority of the Record’s editorial board.