Williams College has released strict new guidelines for students who plan to return to campus for the fall semester.
When WAMC interviewed president Maud Mandel in late June, the Williamstown, Massachusetts liberal arts college had just announced plans to fully reopen despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
WAMC: A lot these plans to re-open rely on students following a very complex and thorough series of safety protocols. How do you make sure that students actually tend to those rules? Is that a dynamic that you can really have that level of control over?
MANDEL: So I've- People ask me this question a lot. And what I would say is that, in fact, they're not that complicated. There really are three basic things that students have to do that then govern everything else. Wear masks when they're outside of their living spaces, but in indoor spaces stay six feet apart from each other, and to wash their hands a lot. These are the sort of the three guiding principles of living safely with COVID.
Now, with coronavirus numbers surging around the country, that attitude is out the window.
“The requirements that we have in place that we feel really good about in terms of their ability to keep the community safe are going to be difficult. They’re a big change from what students are used to," said Marlene Sandstrom, the Dean of Williams College. She issued a letter Thursday outlining extensive new precautions for students who have opened to return for the fall – about 1,600 of the college’s 2,200 total.
“We have students from almost every state in the country and representing many, many countries across the globe," Sandstrom told WAMC. "I know that some of our international students are struggling with being able to get visa appointments and to make sure that they’re able to get here, so some students will not be able, unfortunately, to get to Williams even though they’d like to. But I imagine that we will be welcoming students from a huge swath of the country and the globe.”
The stark differences will begin the moment they get to campus.
“Students really need to think carefully about whether or not they think that given who they are and how they function whether this is going to be a good fit for them for the fall semester,” said Sandstrom.
Family and friends will not be allowed to help them move in to dorms, and they’ll be immediately tested – ultimately having to produce two negative COVID tests while they quarantine.
“And we recognize that that’s going to be challenging, spending 5 to 7 days by yourself in your room is going to be hard," said the dean. "It’s going to be hard physically, it’s going to be hard from a mental health perspective.”
Sandstrom says the college is prepared to support students during the quarantine.
“So they’ll have the initial testing, the two negative tests, they’ll be cleared from quarantine, and then there will be ongoing testing – and initially, we plan to test students twice per week,” she told WAMC.
Internal emails obtained by WAMC News show Williams has asked its own staff to assist in the testing process, which Sandstrom confirmed.
“We are going to use our existing staff to man our testing site, meaning handing out the swabs and the vials and the bags and taking care of the registration and making sure that we are matching students and the labels on their tests with the correct ID information and observing the tests, that’s something that our Williams staff is going to manage,” Sandstrom told WAMC.
She says the staff will be compensated for the work and receive training first. The tests themselves will be processed by the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
For students, infractions like failure to perform the biweekly tests will result in expulsion from campus – as will failure to abide by a travel ban that demands students stay on campus for September and within Berkshire County for the semester.
“We’re counting very heavily for students to care for themselves and care for others, and we are encouraging everybody to speak up when they see anybody whether it’s a student or a faculty member or a staff member who is not holding up their end of the bargain: not wearing a mask when they should be, not engaging in the proper social distancing,” Sandstrom said.
Sandstrom’s letter to students revealed that over half of the college’s faculty opted to teach remotely for the semester – and that more might continue to do so after it begins. For one professor who has taught at the college for 43 years, the demands of the coming semester, coupled the death of his wife in May, have encouraged him to retire before it begins.
“I was on leave last spring, so I was not involved in remote teaching. I’m basing this on my computer ignorance, which is profound," said Charles Dew. "I’m basing this on the experience of colleagues with whom I spoke who said that it was exhausting and that there was a portion, a percentage of the class that wasn’t on board.”
Dew, the Ephraim Williams professor of American history, will add an “emeritus” to that title at the end of August. He praises the college’s efforts to reopen during the pandemic, but shared his own doubts about students’ ability to maintain the strict new standards.
“Those years between 17, 21, are remarkably adventuresome years for many people," Dew told WAMC. "And I think the sort of monastic life almost that’s going to be asked of our students is quite a large order. I think it’s going to be very difficult to persuade college students that the sort of social life that they expect at a place like this has got to be put on hold.”
Sandstrom says the college has been in conversation daily about local, state, and national updates on the pandemic, constantly reshaping Williams’ plan.
“It is possible that we will need to change course if conditions worsen," she told WAMC. "We are looking at the rate of infection in Berkshire County, which is still relatively low, and at this point, we’re confident that our plan – our testing and our contact tracing and our isolation plan – is really robust, and we can handle student arrival. If that changes, we will change course.”
The first day of class at Williams is September 10th.