WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — On Thursday, Williams College got down to the business of feeding students' minds.
Feeding their bellies was almost as much of a challenge.
"I would say the hardest part of all this, actually, is how to feed students in this new environment," Williams Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration Matt Sheehy said on Thursday afternoon. "My colleague, Temesgen Araya, our new dining director, had the toughest job and just did amazing work — when you think about taking what is a traditional, buffet-served environment and having to flip it on its head and say, ‘How do you do to-go ordering, mobile ordering,' all of these kinds of things in a span of five months.
"And then, oh, by the way, we're going to quarantine students [during the arrival period], so now you've got to deliver meals."
Williams has been delivering education — and probably some sort of dining plan — since 1793, but never before in an environment like that created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the first day of the fall semester, Sheehy joined Vice President for Finance and Administration Fred Puddester and Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom to talk about how the return of students has gone and how the college has prepared to fulfill its academic mission in the age of COVID.
The intake process, which began with a phased return of about 1,600 students starting Aug. 24, required each student to have two negative tests for COVID-19 before being released from their dorm room.
If anything, that process went better than expected.
"I think we would say that we overengineered the process," Sheehy said. "We had too many golf carts and too many vans and too many people. A student would arrive, and it would take them all of 58 seconds to go from the back of a parent's car, through testing, get their key, get in a golf cart and zip on up to campus.
"On the same vein, we learned throughout the process that the tests were coming back much quicker than, I think, anyone anticipated."
Just two of those tests turned up positive out of 7,427 tests conducted (including faculty, staff and repeat tests of students) since Aug. 17, a rate of .03 percent.
Anyone who tests positive must be isolated for 14 days following their initial positive test. Both the individuals who tested positive remain in isolation, though one is scheduled to be released this week, Sheehy said. The college also has 10 students in 14-day isolation in a designated residence hall who were close contacts of the second person to test positive. The college hopes all of those students will be released by Sept. 20.
Once released, all students are being held to a strict set of anti-transmission protocols, including limits on the size of gatherings and an expectation that they wear face coverings at all times except in a narrowly defined "pod" of fellow occupants of a housing unit — anywhere from two to 12 residents, depending on the hall.
Through at least the end of the month, students also are restricted to the campus and adjacent public areas, like Spring Street, while the college is prohibiting access to many of the campus amenities where it usually welcomes the larger community.
"This is just really a moment where we're trying to create environments for our students where they feel safe," Sheehy said. "We just ask community members to be patient with us, whether it's an outdoor space they're used to using or going into our library or coming into our dining facility … we're really trying to create these spaces and give our students a sense that, for lack of a better term, it's their space and they don't have to share it at this time."
Since the students started occupying their space, two have had their status changed by the college from "on campus" to "remote" for the semester, meaning that they cannot have access to any college buildings but can complete their studies remotely, like the approximately 400 students who chose that option before the year began.
Sandstrom on Thursday said the removal of those two students was not meant to send a signal about how seriously the college was taking the protocols.
"We laid out the rules as clearly as we could, and then we are dealing with the behavior that we see," she said.
Sandstrom declined to speculate about whether that enforcement action also may have served as a deterrent — unintentional or otherwise.
"I don't know," she said. "I think that we consistently and in as many ways as we possibly can tried to be clear about what the policies are, why they're really important, trying to encourage students to be active bystanders as they walk around — not just students but faculty and staff — to remind each other about the rules.
"So many things have gone into this. There are poster campaigns, there are videos. There are suggestions about how to talk to somebody else. It's hard to point to any one thing that's a thing that might be helping to shape students' behavior. I think there's just a lot of pieces here."
She said administrators have received some reports about non-compliance from various sources, ranging from residential life staff to custodians to anonymous reports to the Campus Safety and Security Department, and college officials have addressed those situations on a case-by-case basis.
"There have been a few dean's meetings, which are meant to be educational in nature," she said.
If students do need to report an incident of non-compliance, they can do so without fear of reprisal, Sandstrom said.
"It's always a concern, pre-COVID as well, that students understand that safety comes first before any kind of rule enforcement," she said. "We've always had an amnesty policy so that students understand if there's a health crisis. If someone needs medical attention or any kind of crisis, they will not be punished for violating the rules.
"And that's important, because if you don't have an amnesty policy in place, then students have to make a decision about whether they seek out help and what that might mean in terms of personal consequence. We've always had an amnesty policy, and we've made clear that that applies in terms of our COVID policy. And contact tracing is not something that's reported to the college; our contact tracers will work with known positive cases, but they're not supplying that information to us. We've made that clear to students as well."
In general, the college officials who talked to iBerkshires.com on Thursday agreed that the level of compliance with the college's safety protocols has been high. Sandstrom noted that the good weather the last few weeks has allowed students to do most of their socializing outdoors. And, when in public, the majority appear to be following the rule about face coverings.
"Who knows what this will look like in a week or so, but I have to say that the number of people who are reporting how pleased they are to see how the campus is functioning far outweighs the feedback we're getting about concerns," she said.
In addition to providing for the educational and housing needs of its students, Williams is taking a proactive stance about the social and emotional impact of the pandemic.
"All of our mental health care is offered through our Integrative Wellbeing Services," Sandstrom said. "They actually started the semester by offering what they're calling 'Quarantine Connections.' So, every day there were a variety of ways students could connect with the IWS staff — not therapeutic, but in one session, for example, they would make a collage out of found items in their room that represent themselves or they did some journaling or they did some mindful meditation."
For students who need more support, the IWS staff is available for remote psychotherapy, or students can take advantage of the online counseling service Talkspace.
On the instructional side, Williams' faculty has been supported since March, when the college first suspended in-person instruction, with additional training from the school's Office for Information Technology, the Dean of Faculty and the library. Since more than 50 percent of the school's classes this fall are being taught remotely and many of the remainder are a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, those tools continue to be important.
"The faculty spent the summer, which is often a time focused on their individual scholarship, focusing on how to do teaching in a way to address remote students," Sandstrom said.
Of course, Williams is not alone in higher education in that — or any — regard.
"This is a moment where no one feels they have proprietary rights over anything they're doing," Sheehy said. "There's been a real collegial atmosphere of, 'Here's how we're doing this. And here's how we're doing that.' There's been a lot of beg, borrowing and stealing. There's no road map for this. There's no template for how you react to these things.
"No one feels ownership or the need to say, ‘I'm going to keep that close to the vest.' And I think that's happening up and down the organization, from the curricular side to the operations side."