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Williams Welcomes Community Questions About Students' Return

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Williams College's Jim Kolesar, upper left, moderates Wednesday evening's forum with, clockwise, Vice President Fred Puddester, President Maud Mandel and Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College President Maud Mandel said Wednesday that she is "optimistic" that students returning to campus in the fall will follow the protocols in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but she realizes that there will be lapses.
 
On the other hand, Mandel noted that lapses in social-distancing and face-covering guidelines occur in all segments of the population.
 
"The mask wearing, social distancing and the cleaning, these three things that our public health advisors stressed to us over and over again, is going to be coupled with a robust testing regime that, in all these places you're reading about where there are COVID outbreaks, is not happening," Mandel said. "These things are going together in a relatively closed community.
 
"It is true that we are not going to be able to control everything. And we will not know about every transgression. But 100 percent of the people do not have to follow 100 percent of the rules 100 percent of the time in order for this to work. Most people have to follow the rules most of the time in the collective work of protecting the community."
 
Mandel was speaking during a forum the college hosted for members of the community concerned about the school's plans to welcome back the 1,600 students who have opted to either begin (as freshmen) or resume their studies on campus this fall after the school was closed to physical classes in March.
 
The college president said she is asked "all the time" how schools can expect undergraduates in a residential college setting to observe the social distancing guidelines espoused by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And she said she understands the concern.
 
"Maybe I'm naive to say what I'm about to say, but I really believe that while it is true that we've all read stories of students making poor choices, we've read stories of all kinds of people making poor choices," Mandel said. "I believe Williams students can be good ambassadors of the very best public health practices, if we consistently and regularly remind all of us of the necessity of making good choices.
 
"And the best thing we can all do is model that behavior ourselves. I will do that. We're asking faculty and staff to do that. We've engaged student leaders. We have an active effort across the campus right now, where [Junior Advisors] and captains of teams and leaders of registered student organizations and residential counselors are all being pulled in to a public health initiative, where they are working together to create social media and posters to encourage best practices among their peers."
 
When asked about the consequences for students who do not follow those best practices, Mandel first said the message she is sending is that the consequence will be a "collective punishment."
 
"We'll have to close the campus [again] if we don't all follow the rules," she said.
 
When pressed by moderator James Kolesar, the college's assistant to the president for community and government affairs, Mandel said the college is prepared to speak to rule-breakers one-on-one and those who flagrantly violate the guidelines may ultimately be asked to continue their studies remotely from their hometown.
 
All of this is laid out in a contract that students are required to sign before they return to campus. Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch, who joined Mandel and Williams Vice President for Finance Fred Puddester in the video conference, noted that other "outsiders" entering the North Berkshire town sign no such contracts.
 
"In some ways, we're in a unique situation because the college has been able to be well informed by experts … and has come up with a very intentional approach to bring in 1,600-plus people in a very controlled manner," Hoch said. "In the rest of the community, we don't have that luxury. Visitors are coming now from away. They may or may not follow state quarantine guidelines. They may come, and they may go. We don't test them. We don't know what that exposure is.
 
"While my economic development side of me is thrilled to see so many people back, from the public health side, there's an exposure. In [Williams'] case, it's a big number. It's a big surge all at once, but it's so much more controlled than we see every weekend right now."
 
Several of the questions in Wednesday's hour-long forum (viewable on the college's website and the town's community access television station, WilliNet), involved the college's testing protocols. Students will be tested upon their arrival on campus and ordered to stay in their dorm room for up to 48 hours while awaiting the results of the initial test, and students, faculty and staff will be tested twice a week the first two weeks and once a week after that.
 
Puddester said the college is working with the Cambridge-based Broad Institute to conduct tests that will have results within 48 hours, providing the college with more real-time information about potential incidences of COVID-19 than is available in the rest of the population.
 
The college officials were asked whether Williams would offer such testing to members of the town who don't work on campus.
 
"The Broad Institute has a program that is just for higher education," Puddester said. "We're not allowed to test anyone other than students, faculty and staff."
 
But some level of community testing may be available at some point in the future.
 
"Based on the college's work identifying the capacity Broad had and how effective it was going to be and wanting to be as close to that as possible, the town has been in contact with the public and community partner Broad is working with to explore being able to complement that so we can offer it to the larger community," Hoch said. "We've expanded the conversation this week with the school district thinking about the larger Mount Greylock school community. We're working on being able to have a complementary program. It may not have the same weekly, bi-weekly intensity as the college … but we're actively pursuing that."
 
As for the Williams College campus itself, its facilities, including its art museum, recreation center, chapel and Paresky student center will be off limits to anyone without a college ID until further notice.
 
That closure list includes the college's libraries, which will not be a resource even for area college students who are choosing to pursue their studies remotely at other colleges and universities.
 
"However, I know my librarian colleagues at institutions all over the world are doing all they can to support their students who are, or soon will be, studying online and at a distance from their home institution," Williams Director of Libraries Jonathan Miller said on Thursday. "For instance, at Williams we are providing online access to a huge digital library of ebooks, journals, and streaming video, our research librarians are assisting users online, we are acquiring more online materials where we can, and if we can't we are scanning portions of print materials for faculty and students. When necessary we are mailing materials to faculty and students who are living at a distance from the college."
 
Mandel on Wednesday said the decision to close Williams' campus to in-person instruction in March was the hardest of her life and was driven largely by her concerns that the college population -- if it saw a COVID-19 outbreak -- could overwhelm the capacity of Berkshire Medical Center and Bennington, Vt.'s, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
 
She heads into August's planned return of students with the assurances of officials at both hospitals that they have sufficient capacity. But Mandel said she is prepared to make that difficult decision again if necessary.
 
"We really, really hope not to close the college," Mandel said. "But I do think there are two key indicators I'll be watching very closely. One is conversations with local doctors and hospital administrators about the situation in our immediate vicinity because my great fear in March was that our students would take up available hospital beds and there would be too many people and not enough ventilators and ability to support people if they got ill. Right now, we are assured hospital administrators are not concerned they will not be able to meet the need.
 
"Secondary, of course, would be our ability on campus to care for outbreaks of COVID. Right now, we have a lot of positioning in place to care for quarantined students and isolated students, to provide them with food and care for them with telemedicine and transport them to hospital if need be.
 
"If we had an outbreak that was significant enough that we couldn't meet those needs anymore, that would be another significant sign, and I think we'd be able to see that coming, so we'd make decisions in the face of that.

Tags: COVID-19,   school reopening,   Williams College,   


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Mount Greylock School Committee Votes Down Remote Learning Start to School Year

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires.com Sports

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two months of input and advice from Mount Greylock’s working groups looking at the reopening of school were undone in four hours of discussion by the School Committee on Thursday night.

On a 6-1 vote, the committee directed interim superintendent Robert Putnam to submit to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education a radically different plan for the start of the year that moves more children into the school building more quickly than the administration was recommending.
 
Subject to approval by DESE and, not insignificantly, collective bargaining with the district’s unions, there will be no two-week period of fully remote learning as Putnam was proposing.
 
Putnam went into Thursday’s meeting with plans based on input from groups established in the spring and summer by him and his predecessor with the goal of getting the School Committee's blessing for the plan he has to submit to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Friday.
 
Putnam laid out a plan largely like the one he presented in a virtual town hall on Tuesday evening and told the School Committee he was looking for guidance.
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