As Infections Remain Low, College Repeals Covid Restrictions

On Oct. 19, the college announced its return to Level 1: Baseline Covid-19 Operations. Generally students anticipate enjoying newly permitted activities, but some still wish for a more complete return to normalcy.

After months of ever-changing Covid-19 guidelines, the college announced its return to operating with fully in-person activities and appropriate Covid-19 protocols in place. The decision to begin Level 1: Baseline Covid Operations was announced to students on Oct. 19 after infection rates remained low following the Fall Break. This means that there are no longer restrictions on student and college-sponsored travel, limits to gathering and event capacities have been lifted and Valentine Dining Hall has expanded to 100 percent occupancy. Students will now be able to experience the most open campus since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. While students anticipate enjoying the newly permitted activities on and off campus, some still wish for a more complete return to normalcy.

Despite its shift to a low-risk operating status, the college’s indoor double-masking mandate, biweekly Covid-19 testing requirement, and capacity limits for, “pre-approved indoor events where some participants may be unmasked,” remain in place. Many students are confused by the seemingly inconsistent levels of enforcement for these guidelines.  

Emily Jones, Director of Student Health Services, described that the college suddenly changed its operating status because low numbers of positive cases were sustained for several weeks on campus, numbers in the local area, including at UMass Amherst, have continued to decline, and cases did not increase after fall break travel.

Some students expressed support for the new Covid protocols because it means a real acknowledgment of the way that students have, in practice, been bending the rules for some time now. Having the college’s actual rules in line with de-facto practices will keep students safer, some said.

“While the college was aware that parties were happening (because CDCs [Community Development Coordinators] and CSOs [Community Safety Officers] were shutting them down every weekend), there was no way to register a party, which I believe became a safety issue,” said Talia Ward ’23. Ward explained that in attempt to fix the situation, an informal Google Doc was created for teams to sign up to use different spaces on campus. “It was an imperfect system. The sheet didn't reach affinity groups,” she said. This ended up in a division among which groups ended up actually being able to use spaces to host social events, a dynamic which ended up falling along the lines of the divide between varsity athletes and non-athletes, and the divide between white students and students of color, she said.

“The lack of a formal way to register a party created unsafe environments for both students and the CDCs/CSOs on duty,” she added. “When parties are occurring, and the school willfully ignores them while continuing to react with punishment, students don't feel safe reporting incidents that occur at such parties.”

Lucas Romualdo ’24 also agrees with the college’s logic behind loosening Covid restrictions at this point in the semester. “I do think that some of the protocols at the start of the semester, like double-masking for example, were a little bit extreme. I think that given the very low positivity rate, the frequent testing protocols, and the other measures the school is taking to make sure that we are safe, it definitely makes sense to loosen restrictions a little bit and provide students with a return to normal as the semester progresses,” Romualdo said.

He mentioned that the new protocols are, “definitely a welcome change,” and that “the loosened travel restrictions have just created less of a mental burden.”

Mike Gallagher ’24 is also, “glad that things are starting to open up,” but feels that there is some inconsistency in the restrictions given that Val is at full capacity while other buildings are not.

Where does this leave mask mandates?

The College’s operating status at Level 1 means that the same mask mandates implemented at the start of the semester remain in place. Students are required to wear face masks in all indoor spaces on campus, with only the exception of being alone in a private personal office or residence hall room. Furthermore, the College requires that either a KN95 mask or doubled disposable, pleated, filter face masks must be worn at all times in classrooms and other academic spaces that are operating at 100 percent capacity. The College does not currently require students to mask outdoors.

As a member of the men’s hockey team, Mike Gallagher ‘24 doesn’t mind the continuation of the college’s indoor mask mandate because, “masking in the hockey rink and in the locker room is the only protocol that is different than in a normal year. On the ice we don’t have to mask as long as we have negative Covid-tests and don’t miss a test. Given that Covid is still a risk, I think it’s important that we take these steps just so that we can keep playing hockey and be able to play against other schools. If we have to keep wearing masks in the locker room and stuff like that I think it’s worth it so that we can have a regular season.”

Frances Burton ’25, a member of the women’s squash team, pointed out that the college’s masking policy is not the same across all winter sports. Unlike hockey, squash players are required to wear masks while they play. As a result, she notes that practices require more exertion than usual. “It’s very hard to breathe while wearing a mask in the confined space of a squash court. It’s so hot down there that it makes it really difficult to train.”

Sean Kim ’25 feels that the college’s masking policy should be changed, or at least made clearer. “I would like there to be more clarity on the double-masking policy because I feel like there’s not a lot of agreement among professors about whether we need to wear a double-mask or a KN95 mask or a single pleated mask, and I think the single pleated mask is sufficient enough — given the low Covid-19 numbers and the fact that we’re all wearing masks already and are vaccinated. I wish the school would just clarify that,” said Kim.

It is unclear if the college plans to eliminate its indoor double-masking policy in the future. It emphasized that its decisions regarding masking and other protocols are heavily conditional on student’ behavior. The Oct. 20 email noted that, “Our ability to remain at Level 1 depends on a number of factors including student compliance with our testing and masking protocols. If student testing compliance falls below 90 percent for two consecutive weeks or if there are widespread reports of students failing to wear masks indoors, then additional protocols will be instituted.”

How are all the protocols being enforced?

Furthermore, while the email noted that the college will continue strongly enforcing the testing protocol, it did not explicitly detail how it will enforce masking or capacity limits:

When it comes to testing, “the Office of Community Standards will continue to follow up individually with students who fail to comply with our testing requirements. Faculty and staff compliance is also monitored, with appropriate steps taken to address non-compliance,” the email reads.

But for other areas of restrictions, systems of enforcement are not as explicitly laid out. Karinna Cvijanovich ’25 explained that as a result of this inconsistent enforcement, the change in protocols haven’t really affected her. “I’ve been leaving campus a lot more now and enjoying that, but I don’t notice much of a change in students' ability to do so because there was not a lot of enforcement before.”

What does the future hold for Covid restrictions?

Students wonder what restrictions and enforcement will be in place going forward, especially given the growing prevalence of booster shots. However, Jones said, “the availability of booster shots will not influence what restrictions the college has in place, but we continue to monitor CDC recommendations regarding booster shots and their availability and encourage those members of our community who are eligible for a booster to get it.”

Instead, Jones detailed that the college, “will certainly be cautious as the weather grows colder and more activities move indoors, and as members of our community travel for the November break. As we did after Fall Break, we will return to Level 2: Enhanced Covid-19 protocols immediately following the November break until test results give us confidence that community members have not returned to campus with active Covid-19 infections.”

Jones believes that this precaution “will be critical to our ability to complete the remainder of the semester without significant disruption.”

Kim hopefully posited that “As long as there is a culture of respect and a culture of ‘Let’s keep everyone else safe,’ I think Covid restrictions could be loosened.”