COVID cases increase, College tightens masking requirements

Izzy Polanco and Kitt Urdang

Masking is once again required in classes, libraries, academic buildings, and indoor athletics facilities, Chief Communications Officer Jim Reische wrote in an all-campus email on Friday afternoon. However, community members can still unmask when eating in dining halls and while in residence halls.

Beyond indoor dining and in residence halls, masks are not required while outdoors, for faculty while teaching, for guest speakers if they stay a safe distance from the audience, or while varsity or club sports practice and compete. Students, faculty, and staff remain required to test once weekly.

Students were allowed to unmask in academic buildings and indoor athletics facilities starting on Feb. 28 and in libraries starting March 21. The College gave professors the authority to decide on masking rules in their classes on April 12.

This news follows the College’s COVID-19 dashboard logging 66 cases in the past seven days, the highest on campus since the Omicron outbreak in January and early February. This increase in on-campus cases comes as the highly transmissible BA.2 Omicron subvariant has grown to account for 86 percent of cases in the United States. Case counts are also rising in Berkshire County and the Northeast region.

In response to the announcement, Josh Kirschner ’24, who tested positive in the College’s testing protocol, said he anticipated the College’s increase in restrictions. “Since spring break, the COVID protocol has been a bit confusing,” he said. “It feels like a string of bad luck that we wanted to [loosen] our restrictions, and then [the surge] got to this point — but still, restrictions had been gone since spring break, so it’s not overly surprising to me that it happened.”

After testing positive for COVID and experiencing symptoms, Emily Axelrod ’25 said that she was able to keep up with her coursework well from isolation. “Despite being bedridden, I was pretty able to navigate my classes and be ahead on my homework, because I’ve had so much free time,” she said. “If anything, this experience has made me realize how busy the day of a Williams student is outside of classes.”

But to Maddy Sullivan ’23, who tested positive for COVID, even though she said that her professors are understanding of her current circumstances, completing coursework was challenging because of her COVID symptoms. “Even reading was difficult because I would get nauseous,” she said. “That made it very difficult to stay on top of my work.” Sullivan also said that she has struggled to stay engaged during virtual classes. “I’m trying to do my best to participate and stay on track, but it’s definitely not the same, which I think my professors understand,” she said. “Still, you’re not the same student when you’re the only person in the class [on Zoom].”

Kirschner echoed a similar sentiment. He said that his professors offered differing options for students with COVID to participate in class. He noted that one of his seminar classes used a system of recording class meetings for students with COVID, which he did not find as helpful. “Being a part of the conversation is how I learn,” he said. “The recording is better than nothing, but still not the same. I think if people are going to keep testing positive, we have to make sure they have an option to keep attending classes in a safe format.”

Axelrod said that her professors were accommodating during her isolation period, and provided her the option of attending classes on Zoom. “All of them said ‘Oh, you can come [on Zoom], but no worries — take time to prioritize your health,’ which was really great,” she said.

In accordance with College policy at the time, Axelrod tested negative for COVID using rapid tests provided by the College before returning to campus following spring break. She said that she took a College PCR test through the testing protocol on April 4, and subsequently took a rapid test on April 5 after experiencing COVID symptoms, which returned a positive result. Current College policy dictates that the day of the first positive result — whether received by a rapid or PCR test — is Day Zero of isolation. Students are eligible to test out of isolation beginning on Day Six.

Axelrod said that she never received confirmation about the result of her Monday test. “They told me ‘Oh, we’re just gonna assume that your PCR from yesterday was positive, and that was Day Zero and today is Day One,” she said. “But I never found out if my PCR test for Monday was positive or not — they just assumed that it was.”

Nigel Jaffe ’22 also expressed confusion regarding PCR results. (Jaffe, who was formerly a member of the Record editorial board, was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.) After testing positive via a rapid test provided by the College, he did not receive confirmation of a positive PCR result after testing at the Health Center. “I’m curious as to whether other people are getting more communication from the Health Center at the College [than I am], because I think that my housemate who has COVID right now got confirmation that her PCR was positive — which I never received,” he said.

Jaffe also noted that the COVID dashboard has provided him with clear information on College cases. “I think it communicates pretty much all the information that someone would need to get to me,” he said. “If somebody were to check the dashboard and want to know whether they should be extra cautious, or otherwise modify their behavior, I feel like the information on the dashboard pretty much gives you enough to work with.”

As a Junior Advisor (JA), Sullivan said that isolation has prevented her from interacting with her entry. Her two co-JAs also currently have COVID. “I miss all my [frosh], and I love spending the time with them… It’s been sad not to be able to do that,” she said.

“Because my [Co-JAs] both have COVID as well, we don’t really have any physical eyes or ears around the entry right now, which makes us feel a little bit disconnected,” Sullivan said. “I’m looking forward to getting out so that I can re-emerge in the entry and participate again. I also hope that everyone’s doing okay, especially with COVID [cases] back up, because I think that’s a time when you might want to vent to your JAs about certain things.”

Axelrod expressed a similar sentiment. “Especially as a first-year, I think it’s hard to feel both sick and far away,” she said.

In Reische’s Friday email, he wrote that the measures are temporary and the College hopes to lift them soon, but that the College may consider tightening the restrictions if cases do not decline. “With some shared effort, Williams can get back to the kind of spring we were on track to enjoy until recently,” he wrote. “That would be the kind of news I’d be happy to share. Thank you for doing your part to get us there.”