|Williams Officials: Town's Safety High Priority in Reopening Plan|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
03:52AM / Monday, August 10, 2020
|Tents outside Cole Field House will be used for COVID-19 testing of returning students. The testing site at in the '62 Center parking deck will be used for testing of staff initially and later will be used for twice-weekly student tests.|
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College officials Friday sought to assure the Board of Health that the safety of the town is at the forefront of the school's plan to welcome students back to campus at the end of the month.
The college's vice president for finance and administration told the board in a virtual meeting that the impact on the community is something that is discussed every day by the school as it prepares for the beginning of students' arrival on Aug. 24.
"Every conversation is rooted in what is safe not only for the college community but the community as a whole," Matt Sheehy said. "As a community member myself living in town, that's rooted in every conversation we have."
The college's general counsel, Jamie Art, another town resident who serves on the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, joined Sheehy and Williams Director of Medical Services Deborah Flynn to talk more about what the college is doing to implement its COVID-19 safety protocols and, in some cases, where it needs support from the town.
"It's easier for the college to control behaviors when it owns the property, can police the students and can impose discipline," Art said in reference to the college's requirements that students observe social distance, face covering and hygiene protocols. "If [violations] happen on campus, it's a closed universe where we have lots of levers. We can enforce our policy and have Campus Safety and Security involved.
"When stuff happens off campus, we have some levers and some contractual, behavioral expectations we can enforce, but we don't have the full set of levers."
For example, Art said, if a student living off campus violates the college's protocols, the school can change the offender's status from "enrolled off campus" to "enrolled remotely," which would deny the individual access to the libraries, student center and other campus facilities.
"But we can't kick them out of an off-campus apartment," Art said. "We can't send them out of town. We can't prevent people who may be taking a gap year from renting an apartment in town.
"These are issues that colleges across the country are struggling with. … Amherst, [Tufts] are concerned about it, and Williams is concerned about it. We have a smaller scale of issues because we are able to house such a high percentage of students on campus."
The majority of Williams College residence hall rooms already were singles, which has made it possible to implement a policy this fall of having all students live on their own to promote social distancing.
"We're able to provide private rooms this fall for the approximately 1,550 students and still have enough left over for 70 isolation rooms and 55 quarantine rooms," college spokesperson Gregory Shook said earlier this week.
Friday's meeting began with a mild rebuke from BOH member Dr. Erwin Stuebner, who questioned why the college did not inform the board of its revised rules for students
prior to issuing them on Thursday.
Art said the college is very open to having conversations with the Board of Health but pointed out the board is constrained by the Open Meeting Law and its 48-hour posting requirements. Sometimes, the college has to act more quickly to implement changes to keep up with changing government mandates, the college officials noted.
Art also pointed out that school officials are in regular conversations with town Health Agent Jeff Kennedy, who is a voting member of the Board of Health.
On Friday, the Board of Health established a working group of Stuebner and Dr. Jim Parkinson with Ruth Harrison as an alternate to hold more frequent discussions with the college and report back to the full board as needed.
On the subject of those updated rules, Stuebner asked the college officials on the call to clarify how Williams defines its campus in the context of the "campus quarantine" that students will face at least through September.
"I've had one business owner come to me and say, 'Can [students] come to Spring Street now?' " Stuebner said.
"I think when we think about a campus quarantine, we think about North/South Street [Route 7] to Water Street [as the eastern edge] and Taconic Golf Club [south] to Cole Field [north]," Sheehy said. "That's probably the campus footprint. I think there are services on Spring Street -- for example, the bookstore for textbooks -- that, once students are released from [dorm room] quarantine they're going to need to have access to for their studies.
"And, not that this should drive our decision, but I think a number of folks who are running businesses in Williamstown are excited to welcome our students back, and we should be mindful of that as well."
For the record, Sheehy said, the college considers Spring Street -- which is surrounded by college property -- part of the campus for purposes of the campus quarantine.
Parkinson pressed the college personnel at Friday's meeting for specific thresholds that Williams will use to decide whether to backtrack and go to a fully remote learning model as it did in March when it sent all of its students home mid-semester.
"I'd like to feel there is a stopgap, there is a point where the college says, 'We can't go on this way,' and goes to all virtual learning," Parkinson said. "What happens if the infection rate goes to 10 percent."
As with previous public presentations this summer, the three Williams officials on Friday's call declined to cite definite benchmarks. But Flynn talked about the factors that would go into that decision.
"There are multiple different variables that go into looking at when you've reached your max," Flynn said. "The World Health Organization says the [positive] testing rate should be less than 5 percent. We have 70 isolation dorms set aside, and … I don't think the health center can support 70 sick students. I think we all know that.
"Our intention will be to meeting with Berkshire Medical Center and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and someone from the Board of Health regularly to figure out: When are we reaching our threshold? What is the percentage we're testing at? And when do we need to close that loop? I think there are multiple different variables that I've seen used. Five percent of our population is still high. … That's a high number that's going to probably overwhelm what we can do with housing.
"And this is exponential growth, too. You don't want until you get to [5 percent]. You get it much lower and say, 'OK, we're moving in the wrong direction.' When the positive rate goes up seven days in a row, even if it's small, you know you've got a problem."
In other business on Friday, the Board of Health talked about how to fill an empty seat on the panel. Chair Ronald Stant encouraged anyone interested in serving to compete a citizen activity form,
available on the town website.