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More than 400 students at Amherst College recently signed an open letter protesting the college’s fall COVID-19 safety protocols.
The dispute, which centers on stricter protocols the Massachusetts liberal arts college put in place late last month, attracted widespread attention on social media and accusations on campus and off of overreach.
The controversy over the new safety measures started when Amherst president Biddy Martin sent an Aug. 24 message to students, faculty and staff outlining changes in the college’s protocols, including a temporary suspension of in-person dining at the campus dining hall, a new outdoor mask mandate (an indoor mask mandate had already been announced) and limitations on students’ off-campus travel through Sept. 13.
Students could still visit the town of Amherst, but they would not be permitted to visit restaurants or bars. Any other off-campus travel, other than to attend courses at another institution in the Five Colleges Consortium, of which Amherst is a part, would need to be approved by Amherst’s Office of Student Affairs.
The college also specified what kinds of masks would be permissible, requiring either a KN95 mask or double masking in classrooms and other academic spaces that are operating at 100 percent capacity. While Amherst had previously said that students would not need to wear masks in residence halls, Amherst said in its Aug. 24 guidance that students must wear masks indoors at all times, including in residence hall common areas, through at least Sept. 13, the only exceptions being for when they are alone in their residence hall room with the door closed or alone in a private office.
Amherst also required all students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but Martin wrote in the Aug. 24 message that vaccination alone is not enough to keep the virus in check.
“We have long known that vaccinations would be absolutely essential, but we now also know that they are not sufficient to avoid the widespread infection that the delta variant can cause,” Martin wrote. “Masks, physical distancing, and limits on indoor gatherings are also necessary. The vaccines continue to be highly effective in preventing serious illness and hospitalization, but we also need to bear in mind the possible exceptions and to protect against the kind of spread that would have lots of students, staff, or faculty in isolation for up to 10 days at a time.”
In the open letter, students raised objections to the changes, arguing the decision making was not transparent and questioning the sources the college relied upon. The letter asked that the college reconsider the outdoor mask mandate and restrictions on visiting restaurants and other nearby towns, such as Hadley and Northampton.
“These guidelines are significantly more restricted than our peer institutions,” the letter states. “We ask for an explanation of what makes the environment at Amherst so different from similarly sized and located colleges.”
In response to the student letter, Martin and two other senior administrators wrote that the college would loosen its outdoor mask mandate, requiring students to have a mask on hand while outdoors but not requiring they put it on except in certain circumstances.
But the Amherst administrators held firm to the other restrictions, including the restriction on visiting restaurants and bars.
“You are welcome to go into town to take care of personal business and to pick up takeout meals, but not to go into restaurants, indoor cafes, or bars. There is plenty of evidence that restaurants and bars are high-risk,” says the letter signed by Martin, Provost Catherine Epstein and Dean of Students Elizabeth Agosto.
More broadly, the administrators argued that now is a time for vigilance.
“Things looked so promising back in July in this country. We imagined a Fall semester that would be much closer to what we had considered normal before the pandemic. However, the delta variant is proving to be a game-changer. We are in the midst of a surge, and you are arriving on campus from all over the country and the world, including from delta hotspots. Hopefully, the spread will level off and recede, as it appears to have done elsewhere, allowing us more room to maneuver and a greater opportunity to experience something closer to the semester we all hoped for. The increases in infections and hospitalizations in Massachusetts continue, but they appear to be slowing. Now is not yet the time to relax key restrictions. Let us all get a better sense of the situation as you arrive and get settled in.”
The debate over Amherst’s policy quickly took off and attracted a life of its own outside the campus grounds.
After a ProPublica reporter asked if other colleges had similarly stringent policies, Nate Silver, the political pollster and founder of the polling website FiveThirtyEight, tweeted to his 3.5 million followers, “It’s pretty insane to put such harsh restrictions in place on a campus where **everybody is fully vaccinated**. Some people have really lost the plot.”
The journalist Glenn Greenwald also tweeted out criticism of the policy to his 1.6 million followers.
“One of the most bizarre aspects of the COVID debate is the same people who insisted (correctly, in my view) that the vaccines are safe and effective in protecting against grave COVID outcomes still want to act as if we’re in a pre-vaccine world and the vaccine changed nothing,” he wrote.
The Associated Press picked up the story, as did a number of conservative media outlets, including Campus Reform, which described the policies as “extreme,” and Reason, which characterized them as “absurd.” A headline in Fox Business News described Amherst students as being in "revolt."
Others defended the policy and contrasted it favorably to those of other colleges that are not requiring vaccines or masks.
“It’s very telling that the folks who are outraged by the intense COVID restrictions that Amherst has put in place don’t seem particularly concerned about the students and faculty at universities with policies that put them in danger of contracting COVID,” Carissa Byrne Hessick, a criminal law professor at the University of North Carolina, said on Twitter. “When University administrators tell faculty that they must allow unmasked and unvaccinated students to meet with them, in person, in their offices, that decision puts those faculty at risk. When Amherst won’t let students go off campus for a few weeks, that’s just annoying.”
"I grew up in Amherst," Genevieve Wojcik, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, said on Twitter. "Enforcing restrictions for the *first 2.5 weeks* to prevent a surge of Delta into an area that does not have the capacity to care for mass illness is smart and considerate. Some people have really lost their decency."
Christopher R. Marsicano, assistant professor of the practice of higher education at Davidson College and founder of Davidson’s College Crisis Initiative, a research center studying colleges’ responses to the pandemic, said there’s no question that Amherst’s policy is among the more restrictive in the country. But, he added, “It’s also one that is based in solid research, peer reviewed or otherwise, that suggests that student mobility leads to community cases. With all of the students being vaccinated, the likelihood of their ability to spread it to each other even with breakthrough cases is very low. However, an asymptomatic breakthrough case walking around town could potentially spread it to unvaccinated people.
“Amherst is attempting to follow the science and come up with the best policy that it can based on its means for the first two weeks of class,” Marsicano said. “Having said that, I completely understand why 18- to 24-year-olds might be disappointed by these series of requirements.”
Amherst is not the only college adjusting its policies in response to the surge in cases. About a dozen colleges have temporarily shifted to remote learning as a means to control spread.
Duke University, which like Amherst also required vaccines for all students this fall, also tightened COVID-19 protocols earlier this week after its surveillance testing found hundreds of positive cases among its mostly vaccinated population. The university announced Monday that over the prior week, 304 undergraduate students, 45 graduate students and 15 employees had tested positive -- and that all but eight of those individuals had been vaccinated. According to Duke, “the vast majority” of those who tested positive were asymptomatic, and none were hospitalized.
Duke administrators said that while vaccines were proving effective at preventing serious illness, the surge was nonetheless “placing significant stress on the people, systems and facilities that are dedicated to protecting our health, safety and the ability of Duke to fulfill its educational mission, particularly our isolation space for on-campus students who test positive.”
Martin, the Amherst president, and other senior administrators stressed that the measures at Amherst were temporary.
“Our goal, as it has been for the past 18 months, is to strike the best possible balance between community safety and your ability to take advantage of an Amherst education and the learning and connection that occurs through your relationships with other people,” they wrote in their message to students. “Across the different constituencies on campus, ages vary widely, as do the forms and degrees of vulnerability among us. We have a responsibility to take the entire community into account.”