Rule-Breaking, Bubble-Bending: Students Work With — and Around — Covid Protocols on Campus

In a Sept. 25 article, Fortune magazine summarized the college’s creation of a Covid-19 “bubble,” mentioning that students’ adherence to health and safety protocols, including three tests per week and a limited number of students, would hopefully keep the virus at bay. While the bubble may keep Covid-19 outside of the campus, it also invokes a sense of confinement, according to many students. As Fortune noted, the map of the campus border “calls to mind movies such as Will Smith’s ‘I Am Legend,’ in which the lead character survives in a post-apocalyptic New York before escaping.”  

Seven weeks into the fall semester and students have adjusted to life on campus, Covid-rules and all. Though the semester began with strict Covid-testing protocols, quarantine requirements and Covid-rules enforcement, on-campus students report that the latter has been relaxed as the semester has progressed. Nonetheless, students still worry about breaking the rules, but not for the obvious reason. As one student, who asked to remain anonymous due to having broken some Covid rules, said, “No one wears a mask on campus to protect themselves from Covid — they’re wearing it to not get reported.”

Across the country, colleges are struggling to ensure adherence to Covid rules. The University of Colorado, Boulder serves as an example of what can happen when students do not adhere to Covid guidelines. Since the university’s reopening in late August, 80 percent of Boulder County’s 1,469 cases were affiliated with the university. On Sept. 24, Boulder County announced that 18 to 22-year-old individuals were banned from gatherings of any size for two weeks. 

Closer to home, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass) is facing a wave of cases, as well. On Sept. 30, The Student reported that the UMass’ cumulative case count totalled 43, and 18 were linked to an off-campus party. On Oct. 6, the UMass Covid Dashboard reported 124 cumulative cases.  

As college students and their rule-breaking and bubble-bending have led to some of the country’s largest spreads of Covid-19, it begs the question of what Amherst is doing to keep its positive rates so low.

Amherst welcomed students back to campus given that they agreed to the Statement of Shared Responsibility and the Community Guidelines. The documents outline that students must maintain appropriate physical distancing, wear a mask at all times (with the exception of when alone in individual rooms) and all student gatherings are limited in size to ten or fewer individuals. Failure to comply with the protocols may result in an interim suspension followed by a referral to Community Standards, which interacts with students to address conflicts related to the Honor Code and Student Code of Conduct.

The Office of Student Affairs (OSA) and the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) are the two entities tasked with  enforcing these guidelines, while the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD) has largely taken a step back from enforcement. The department has since restructured to best fulfill the needs of the campus during the pandemic. ACPD Director of Emergency Management Matt Heart, for instance, has been redeployed as the director of the Covid-19 testing site and the contact tracing team, but police officers do not take an enforcement approach when interacting with students, instead keep it an educational and advisory level.

In addition to its usual duty of responding to police, fire and medical emergencies, ACPD has aimed to close off the campus to off-campus individuals with the hopes of protecting the campus community. “The academic and administrative buildings remain locked now, and the residence halls are accessible only to those students living there,” Chief of Police John Carter said. “Our museums are only available to on-campus students. We have locked our tennis courts and Pratt Field, which were the most attractive places for people in the greater Amherst community,” he said.

On campus, ResLife staff members are responsible for reporting protocol violations. Community Development Coordinators (CDCs) frequently patrol dormitories and tented areas to point out improper mask usage.

Students who work as Community Advisors (CAs) play a part in enforcing the rules, too. When a CA sees a student without a mask, they are expected to report that student to the OSA through the “COVID-19 Community and Individual Behavior Concerns” Google Forms available online or a hotline. 

It is unclear what happens once a student has been reported through the form, which can be submitted anonymously. “We don’t know what happens after we report things,” Sunghoon Kwak ’22, a CA in the Greenway Dormitories, said. 

Consequently, some CAs have opted not to use the form unless their resident has violated Covid protocols multiple times, Kwak added. 

“When we receive a report, we follow-up with students named in the report and the person submitting the report, when known,” said Chief Student Affairs Officer Karu Kozuma. “Students who are named speak with a staff member from OSA, and we discuss what is being alleged and reported, as well as our Community Expectations.” Kozuma reiterated that when the infraction is due to forgetfulness, the college takes an educational approach to resolving the problem. For more severe violations, like leaving campus unapproved or bringing in an outside guest, punishment may include dismal from campus housing, though the student would be allowed to continue their studies remotely.

After the first couple of weeks of strict adherence to the Community Guidelines, students have started to grow more comfortable breaking the rules — not wearing masks in their dormitory halls or outside, socializing in groups larger than 10 and not maintaining physical distancing standards, among other violations  —  knowing they most likely will not be punished, Etta Gold ’23 said. Late Night Val has become the de facto social scene on Friday and Saturday nights. Mask usage is mandatory on campus, except while eating and drinking, and many students use mealtimes to justify not wearing a mask. 

“On the weekends, you grab your mozzarella sticks and sit in the Valentine quad in a tent with other students. It gets crowded,” Gold said. Most of the time, the students packed under the Val tents are unmasked. And while at the beginning of the semester the patrolling CDCs would ask the students to spread out and put on their masks, the enforcement is becoming rarer, Gold said. 

“No one understands what you have to do to get kicked off campus, or get in disciplinary trouble,” she added. 

“Generally, everyone wears a mask,” said Gold. “No one is going crazy and partying, usually.” 

Some students believed that the rules would become more lax as the semester continued and no new cases appeared. While the rules haven’t changed, many students have grown more comfortable breaking them. 

“I expected all the testing, not being able to go into town. I came in prepared for that,” said Lily Popoli ’23. “It seemed like the college would loosen the restrictions once we produced negative tests. Maybe they could open up Val, but it seems like they’re not planning on that.” Dining Services has indicated that Val will remain closed for the rest of the semester. To offer alternatives to outdoor tents in the cold weather, the college is planning on opening up residence halls, the Ford Hall event space and the Powerhouse for indoor eating and gathering. 

While parties on campus are not as ubiquitous as they once were, students are taking risks they deem acceptable, like entering dormitories that are not their own. “We’ve come to understand that we won’t report anyone,” Popoli said. “No one wants to report anything anymore.”

Nonetheless, Kozuma maintains that the rules and their enforcement have not been relaxed. “In fact, we strongly believe [that adherence to the rules is] a large part of why, so far, the number of positive cases is relatively low,” he said. 

During a student forum for remote students discussing the fall 2020 experience, President Biddy Martin noted her satisfaction with students’ adherence to the rules. “We believe students are following the rules closely,” she said. “Not always perfectly, but closely enough for us to be doing well.”

While the social scene on campus amid the pandemic is improving for some daring rulebreakers, the rules have caused many to feel lonely. Kwak, Gold and Popoli all agree that living on campus and following the rules is isolating, and that most of their day is spent inside their room. “There’s just nothing to look forward to,” said Popoli. 

Gold, who is the captain of the women’s club soccer team, socializes by kicking the soccer ball around with friends at practices. Though watched over by a member of the athletic department who makes sure the team wears masks and physical distances, Gold noted that there is not a great alternative. While students may relax in the adirondack chairs and attend socially-distanced, outdoor club events like sports practices for now, it is unclear how students will spend their time once the weather becomes colder. 

One student, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of disciplinary action, returned home just a few weeks into the semester. They pointed to inconsistencies in the rules, an atmosphere of fear on campus and a lack of a social life, coupled with an increased workload as reasons for their departure.

While they knew the rules upon arriving on campus, like other students, they believed the rules would be loosened as the semester continued. Though they generally adhered to the rules, the student admitted to sometimes not wearing a mask outside and occasionally walking through the dormitory halls unmasked. 

Some of the rules did not make sense to them. “If you’re eating together, you’re not wearing masks. Why do you have to wear a mask when we’re not eating? If one of my friends I ate with had Covid, I’d get it, too,” they said.

“The point of the bubble is that you can have certain freedoms that you wouldn’t otherwise,” they said. To them, it didn’t make sense that students took three tests a week, but still couldn’t socialize with their friends.

The student also felt wary with the patrolling presence of the CDCs on campus. “They started having the CDCs walk through our dorms at night. It made me uncomfortable. They waited and listened to see if we were breaking the rules. It was like the college was trying to intimidate us … It was the entire atmosphere, and a culture that was motivated by fear,” that made them leave, they said.

The rules, campus atmosphere and life in a pandemic have taken a toll on the mental and physical health of students. At least a couple of Popoli’s friends have found therapists for the semester, she said. Many first-year students have packed up their bags and left, probably because finding friends while socially distant is difficult, according to Kwak. The Greenways, where Kwak is a CA, houses entirely first-year residents.

Designed to keep students safe, life in the bubble can impede access to medical care. Earlier this semester, one of Kwak’s residents had a medical emergency. Though it did not require calling an ambulance, the emergency did warrant a trip to the hospital. While ambulances are allowed on campus, leaving the bubble is, unexpectedly, difficult. The college eventually called a taxi service for the student, which arrived 40 minutes late and did not follow basic covid protocols.

“It took over an hour for my resident to get to the hospital,” Kwak said. “It’s terribly outlined what we should do in case of an emergency. Similar medical emergencies have come up, and the college was not prepared for that.” Amherst College Emergency Medical Services (ACEMS), for example, is not operating for the semester, further limiting what help is available on campus. 

There are signs that the college will loosen its Covid rules. In a survey sent to on-campus students on Oct. 2, Kozuma wrote that the college will consider adjusting the residence hall access policy, with students voting on whether they wished to maintain the current policy, allow non-residents in residence halls during specified hours or allow non-residents entirely. If enacted, the changes “would be conditional and tied to adherence to mask wearing, physical distancing, maintaining the 10 person group size limitation, overall behavior and the absence of positive cases,” he wrote. 

With the permission of a class dean, students may leave campus when scheduled in advance. Earlier this semester, Kwak needed his wisdom teeth removed. He emailed Dr. Emily Jones,  director of student health services, then walked to the nearest dentist off-campus. “It was eerie to leave campus that way,” Kwak said. “They didn’t give me any rules to follow, they just said, ‘Sure.’”

For students who wish to leave campus for the remainder of the semester, they must contact their class dean, schedule a meeting and adhere to a pick-up time and location.  

Maintaining a bubble while keeping students happy is difficult. “I don’t feel frustrated by the rules,” Gold said. “I feel very grateful for what the school is doing to make us safe and to make sure there aren’t any cases.”