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Williamstown Board of Health Talks Students' Return With College Officials
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:02AM / Wednesday, July 22, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Board of Health on Monday morning reviewed Williams College's plan for the return of students for in-person instruction in the fall.
The members of the board were familiar with the presentation given by the college's president to the community last Wednesday, but they had some follow-up questions for a panel that included Williams Vice President for Finance and Administration Fred Puddester, Associate Vice President for Finance and Administration Matt Sheehy and Director of Medical Services Deborah Flynn.
Most of those questions involved the college's testing protocol for students and staff.
Dr. Erwin Stuebner kicked things off by asking why the college decided not to do as some colleges have and require students coming from "hot spots" for COVID-19 not be tested within three to five days of traveling to Williamstown.
Sheehy said it was a question of logistics and pointed out that students traveling from out of the area might not receive the results of their pre-departure test for five to seven days.
On the other hand, all students arriving on campus will have to be tested and ordered to remain in their dorm room until the college gets the result of their tests — within 48 hours thanks to an arrangement between the college and Cambridge's Broad Institute.
"Our plan is, when they get here, to test them immediately and test them twice a week," Sheehy said. "We're going to ask all students, if practical, to self-quarantine at home for 14 days before coming. If they are quarantined [by local health officials] after having close contact with someone, we will ask them not to come unless they are cleared by medical professionals."
The college plans to report its testing numbers to the public on a "dashboard" on its website, similar to the reporting conducted by Berkshire Medical Center.
Williamstown Health Inspector Jeff Kennedy asked that the college provide information about positive tests to himself and Leslie Drager, the town's public health nurse, as soon as possible so she can get started with contact tracing.
"Leslie will take the lead on all positives," Flynn told the board. "Whether they are students or not. We will have people trained to help."
Stuebner expressed confidence in Drager's ability but asked what happened if the town saw a cluster of positive cases that overwhelmed its capacity to do the tracing.
"The plan we have in place is Leslie tells me she has people she can draw on as well," Flynn said. "We will have — right now, two people who are trained and we're having another two training as well. We have the capability to help her."
Flynn said the college will be looking to hire local emergency medical technicians to help supervise the students and staff, who will collect their own nasal swabs to hand off to the Broad Institute for rapid testing. And college officials told the BOH that all students will be required to comply with the weekly testing protocol in order to have access to the campus — whether they are taking in-person classes or doing all of their academic work remotely from their dorms or apartments.
Puddester acknowledged that the college has heard that there may be some students who decide to live in Williamstown in non-college housing and take their classes remotely, but the college has no control over that — any more than it would a group of students who rent an apartment in New York City and live together taking classes remotely there.
"We're going to offer all those students testing, but we can't require it [unless they come on campus]," Puddester said. "[Without regular testing], they won't be able to go to the library, Paresky [student union], etc."
Board of Health member Dr. James Parkinson asked what the college's policy would be on student travel out of town once they are on campus.
"Students are being told that travel is not allowed," Puddester said.
But he indicated that a trip to the Stop & Shop just over the town line in North Adams likely would not be prohibited, and college officials indicated that there will be some case-by-case decisions on the travel issue.
"There are students who reached to me whose parents are ill," Flynn said when asked if students will be allowed to leave campus to deal with a family emergency. "We are working with them individually. If someone is going to California, we wouldn't be excited about having them travel back, but if someone is within driving distance … I think there's going to be a lot that goes into that [decision]."
Puddester noted that there is a student who was scheduled to return to campus before Labor Day but who said their family has a major event planned that weekend.
"We told them to delay your travel until after," Puddester said.
Sheehy noted the college needs to consider the fact that Massachusetts has lifted self-quarantine restrictions for people entering the commonwealth from the New England states, New York and New Jersey, where COVID-19 levels are currently low. If that lifting remains in effect in September, it changes the college's thinking about travel to those sites, Sheehy implied.
"[Flynn's] point that these are individual conversations is important," Sheehy said. "We're saying no travel and encouraging those conversations to occur through appropriate student-facing channels."
Parkinson asked the college representatives to nail down what specific threshold the college would use for again closing the campus to in-person instruction, as it did in March.
Puddester declined to speculate about specific metrics but reiterated what President Maud Mandel said in last week's community town hall: that the college will be in constant touch with officials at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington to make sure the local hospitals have capacity in case of a spike in COVID-19 cases.
But there are other factors that will weigh on the college's decision if that day comes.
"To most people, the first thing is whether Deb [Flynn] and her staff could handle the health needs," Puddester said. "To us, eating is important — whether we can get [students] food. There are lots of things involved. We'll be in very close touch with the local medical staff in the county. We'll continue to monitor that as we go through."
Sheehy used Monday morning's meeting to emphasize another point that came up in the forum: Town residents can help foster compliance to social distancing by the college community by modeling good behavior.
"Obviously, we're taking those commitments very seriously and believe the way to deal with this is … to wear a mask, socially distance and practice good hygiene," Sheehy said. "Those are the tenets we'll be espousing throughout all this.
"Not only on campus but in the community. The number of places I've been in up and down Spring Street or in public buildings where people aren't doing that — we need to demonstrate that for these students who are coming back to our community. I think we have a long way to go."
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