Berkshire Colleges COVID Reporting Remains In The Single Digits | WAMC

Berkshire Colleges COVID Reporting Remains In The Single Digits

Sep 22, 2020

Positive COVID-19 tests remain low at Berkshire County higher ed institutions.

Last week, Berkshire Community College had its first brush with the pandemic on its Pittsfield, Massachusetts campus.

“Well we have put a great plan in place and we were able to test it as we had a first positive case with a student," said President Ellen Kennedy. “And that was to notify the Department of Public Health and the community the student lived in and then, always, anything we do, we do with Pittsfield. And then we notified the faculty and students and the people at the college who needed to know in order to do the work they needed to do to both protect the students and our faculty and protect all the rest of our employees and any visitors to the campus.”

While most of BCC’s 2,200 students are off campus, the person who tested positive was taking an on-campus class for an allied health program. Now, 42 students and faculty have been told to self-quarantine following the positive test.

“So we follow all of the guidelines of who would be primary contact, secondary contact, all of that," said Kennedy. "And we work with the Pittsfield Department of Public Health to make sure that we share with them the situation – and they’re talking to the individuals involved, and they’re helping to identify who needs to be notified and what those individuals need to do.”

The college has dedicated working groups to managing life during COVID.

“We’ve had a return to campus group," said Kennedy. "We now have a continuation of operations planning group, the COOP Group, who meet every week to look at any of the issues that we’re wrestling with to ensure that our plan continues to reflect the guidelines from the state and the federal government, the CDC.”

Every other Friday, Kennedy says the college participates in a call with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Response Team.

“And that connects us with Dr. Madoff and the Department of Public Health, and we get a lot of our questions answered through that process," she said. "The governor is actually meeting with some representatives of public higher education this week to talk about how things are going and to find out what issues we’re facing.”

Twenty miles north of Pittsfield is another public college – the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, student body around 1,200. It has had two positive cases among the 530 or so students living on campus.

“All in single rooms, and so we intentionally de-densified campus in that way," explained Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Gina Puc. “Those students are tested once a week for the first month, and then we’ll move into – we’re calling it surveillance testing. So we’ll test a random sample of the population, about 25% of those students, each week going forward for the rest of the semester. And we’ve been happy that we’ve been able to contain the spread of COVID on campus.”

Only one of the college’s two reported cases is still active. Like BCC, MCLA says it’s worked closely with local and state authorities on contact tracing in both instances.

“If an individual tests positive for COVID and they’re a resident student, they’re immediately put into isolation," said Puc. "If they were faculty, staff or a commuter student, they would of course be in isolation at home, not coming to campus.”

In addition to de-densified dorms and classrooms and hybrid models of learning, Puc says the success of MCLA’s COVID policies so far can be attributed to its community.

“I think our students have been really creative as well as our staff and student affairs around campus programming – doing outdoor socially distanced movie nights and things like that," she said. "Kind of find ways to build community at such a strange time on a college campus.”

In nearby Williamstown, the private Williams College – which had its first positive test in late August – has only registered three positives to date out of almost 11,500 tests.

“So we’re happy with those results, and we have moved – when the students came to campus, they were tested twice a week. And we’ve now moved to testing students only once a week," said Vice President for Finance and Administration Fred Puddester. About 75% of its 2,200 or so undergraduates have returned to campus this semester, where Williams established its own bubble. 

“They’re still restricted to campus," said Puddester. "They can’t travel off the campus.”

While forbidden student partying has been the cause of outbreaks around the nation, Puddester joins Puc at MCLA in attributing the low number of positives to the college community’s behavior during the crisis.

“I think our students are doing a fantastic job adhering to the rules," he told WAMC. "If you walk on campus now, you see students wearing masks, you see students staying distant from each other. So adherence to the protocols is one of the real success stories here at Williams College.”