Surge in Covid Cases Prompts Protocol Changes

The college had 153 active Covid-19 cases at the beginning of the day on March 1. In response to the large increase in cases, the college has announced changes to its Covid safety protocols multiple times over the past week.

The image depicts a room crowded with students eating at tables in the back room of the dining hall.
Students sit at tables in a crowded Valentine dining hall. The college’s recent surge in cases has prompted it to announce changes to its Covid safety protocols multiple times over the past week. Photo courtesy of Corri Hickson ’25.

The college had 153 active Covid-19 cases at the beginning of the day on March 1, over 53 percent of the 284 total positive cases since Jan. 30. A hundred and fifty of these cases were students, comprising about eight percent of the student body.  In response to the large number of cases, the college has announced changes to its Covid safety protocols multiple times over the past week. Students expressed concern about the rising number of cases, as well as confusion over the shifting protocols.

On Feb. 25, Dean of Students Liz Agosto announced a series of tightened protocols aimed at mitigating spread, after 40 new positive cases on Feb. 24 — the single greatest number of cases on one day since the pandemic began — had brought the total number of active cases to 103. On March 1, however, Agosto acknowledged that cases remained high, but announced that all increased protocols from her previous email had been lifted, citing the fact that testing days since Thursday have not brought the same spike of 40 to 50 cases per cycle.

The protocol changes announced in Agosto’s Feb. 25 email had included reinstating a masking requirement in residence halls, limiting Valentine Dining Hall and non-academic indoor events (excluding those in residence halls) to 50 percent capacity, and canceling events scheduled under the Student-Hosted Event Policy for the weekend of Feb. 25-27. Students were also prohibited from dining in at restaurants and bars.

Agosto’s March 1 email announced that there were 47 new positive student cases since the previous email, and that the college was now utilizing more than 75 percent of its available isolation space across four different facilities (Inn on Boltwood, Rodeway Inn, Econo Lodge, and now, Howard Johnson).

Agosto stated that should the number of active cases surpass the number of off-campus isolation beds available, “The college will move toward an isolation-in-place strategy wherein students living in singles will isolate in their residence hall room and each hall will have a designated restroom for use by students who have tested positive.”

Some students expressed surprise at the decision to loosen the protocols, in light of the high case count. Matthew Chun ’24 described the changes detailed in the email as “a funny strategy.” He added, “Loosening the restrictions seems like a very bold move.”

Cameron Mueller-Harder ’22 sent a message in the campus-wide GroupMe questioning the college’s reasoning for loosening restrictions. “They really said ‘we have 75% of our isolation space filled, and the most ongoing cases we’ve ever had, but people who get COVID haven’t been being that symptomatic so let’s go back to normal, why not[?]’”

Sarah Weiner ’24 echoed a similar sentiment. “I don’t understand why we’re loosening restrictions if cases are going up.”

“Even though I want looser restrictions, logically, I don’t understand why they would do that,” she continued.

Mueller-Harder also expressed concern about the implications of the college’s decision. “It feels like the administration no longer acknowledges that this is a deadly and contagious disease,” they said.

Mueller-Harder added, “I have asthma and if I get COVID, I will likely experience life-long lung problems. Approximately 8% of American adults have asthma [...] I don’t understand the complete disregard for student safety, both on the part of the administration and what feels like the majority of the student body.”

Xander Schwartz ’23 was not surprised by the outbreak, stating it was “somewhat predictable” after looking at the Covid-19 statistics from Amherst’s peer institutions when students returned from winter break. However, Schwartz voiced his dissatisfaction with the college’s “down the middle” approach.

“I feel like the school either needs to decide we’re living with Covid and there’s not much we can do about it and lift more restrictions beyond testing and maybe classroom masking, or go into some form of lockdown and try to reset our numbers and keep Covid off campus. Taking the middle approach mainly means we are both living with Covid and Covid restrictions which in some ways is the worst of all worlds,” Schwartz said.

Will Marshall ’24 is glad the college lifted the new restrictions.“The facts on Covid are clear: vaccines lower risk to a tolerable level on a community-wide basis, and masks protect the wearer (as the CDC has stated) providing additional security to immunocompromised folks. Recognizing that we have entered a new phase of the pandemic, the college should continue to lift restrictions in accordance with the declining risk to our community and the significant burden that restrictions place on the community,” Marshall said.