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Williams College Party Sparks Superspreader Fears, Frustration Among Students

A stately house with columns surrounding its entrance sits on a lawn with trees around it.
Jeongyoon Han
Wood House at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

A party thrown by students on the campus of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts Friday has raised concerns about COVID-19 spread and violations of public health measures.

On Saturday, Williams president Maud Mandel sent an email to the college community alerting it to a large gathering inside the Wood House dormitory Friday night.

“It’s not a huge dorm, so for 80 to 100 people to be crammed in there, certainly they could not be even anywhere close to socially distanced," said junior Irene Loewenson, a managing editor of The Williams Record, the student newspaper. “President Mandel also mentioned that the masking was far from perfect – many people were not wearing masks or had them around their wrists.”

Under the college’s current COVID-19 protocols, students aren’t allowed to socialize indoors with anyone outside of their living space pod mates – making a gathering of up to 100 a brazen violation.

“Even having a party of five people from different pods with masks and distancing was against the rules for now," said Loewenson. "And those rules were going to change on March 1st, so, today, but because of this party, the college decided to push back the date of loosening those restrictions by two weeks to March 15th at the earliest.”

In her letter, Mandel says the college is concerned about the potential for the party to become a superspreader event and calls on participants to come forward in the name of public health.

“The college is doing an investigation to find out who was in attendance at the party, and those found to have been in attendance or involved at the party will be removed from campus and transition to remote learning – and those who do not come forward voluntarily will be subject to disciplinary measures," explained Kevin Yang, also a junior and the editor-in-chief of the Record. “Which is a break from enforcement from last semester, because we saw some instances of large outdoor gatherings then – outdoor gatherings, which is different from this indoor gathering – but few students if none at all were actually removed from campus as the result of those gatherings.”

Loewenson says frustration over the party is palpable on campus.

“There’s an old saying – your liberty to swing your fist ends where my nose begins," she told WAMC. "And it seems like a lot of students at Williams feel like they just got punched in the nose.”

In a rare move, The Record published an editorial about the incident independent of its weekly Wednesday issue with three requests to the Williams community.

“The first is to the college to suspend athletic practices in recognition of the possible spread that may result from those practices," said Yang. "There really aren’t any comparable student group activities as far as we know.”

The second asks professors to transition classes to remote learning this week.

“We also put out a call to those who were at the party to come forward to the dean’s office and own up to their responsibility, and also, if they’re not willing to do that, to self-quarantine and to stay away from students outside of their pod to minimize any chance of harm,” he said.

Yang stresses that the risk is very real, citing other outbreaks at other Northeast colleges this semester.

“At Dartmouth, for example, there’s an ongoing outbreak with over 100 cases now and that makes up 4% of the cases in the state, active cases in the state of New Hampshire," he said. "So I think everyone on campus right now is pretty on edge, trying to figure out how to best proceed.”

Both Williams College and the Northern Berkshire Regional Emergency Planning Committee declined to comment on this story.

The town of Williamstown told WAMC it is monitoring the situation.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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