Planning for an in-person fall semester

Williams faculty, staff and students,

Some of you have understandably started to inquire about plans for the fall term. People are wondering whether the college will make changes in response to the rise of the Delta variant, emerging data on breakthrough infections or the CDC’s newly-revised masking guidelines.

Based on current public health data and expert advice, Senior Staff and I believe Williams can and should continue planning a safe, in-person fall term for academics, campus life and work. As I always say in these messages, we will continue to track the situation closely and announce a change in direction if necessary. Repeated changes can be disruptive, and we will work to help people through whatever changes are needed.

Today I want to explain our guiding principles for fall planning, followed by high-level summaries of the plan we expect to put in place. We will email further details as they are confirmed.

The core of our plan is our responsibility to Williams’ mission. In the current environment, we need to take at least two major factors into account to meet that obligation:

  • One is educational and developmental: Williams exists to offer a liberal arts education rooted in close faculty-student connections and a sense of community. Any plan has to support that endeavor as fully as possible.
  • A second is public health: We have to nurture our extraordinary learning environment without putting anyone at undue risk. Fortunately, research points to vaccination and masking as a highly effective combination for preventing Covid infection and transmission.

After considerable deliberation and review of the data, Senior Staff and I have decided we will aim for a fall semester that includes many elements of a conventional academic year, using a plan informed by science and attentive to varied concerns and needs. Here are the basic elements, with more details to follow in the coming weeks:

Vaccination

Getting vaccinated is the single most important thing any of us can do to protect ourselves and each other, which is why we established a vaccination requirement. Happily, many of you have already taken this step. Our reported vaccination rate on campus is very high with roughly four weeks left until our August 31 reporting deadline.

But to get a full picture of the public health situation we need everyone to report. If you have not yet done so, please submit your documentation as soon as possible using either the faculty/staff process or the student one. You must do so by August 31 at the latest.

And if you have not gotten vaccinated but are eligible, please do so right away. It is never too late.

As a reminder, only staff, faculty and students who have been fully vaccinated and submitted their documentation will be allowed to work and study on campus without needing to mask and  participate in mandatory testing.

Masking

Masking significantly reduces the spread of Covid, especially combined with vaccination. In keeping with advice from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, we will require unvaccinated people to mask. We also urge vaccinated people who are at increased risk from Covid or who live with someone at increased risk to wear face coverings indoors. For now, we strongly encourage voluntary masking but will not require it as a policy.

That could change if the outlook worsens. The CDC’s research indicates that the Delta variant can be transmitted even by vaccinated, asymptomatic people. This creates a risk of spreading it to other community members who are vulnerable to Covid or have family members who are. If the virus continues to spread, masking may be necessary to help everyone in our community study or work here without fear of exposure.

Testing

Mandatory testing for vaccine-exempt and symptomatic people

As announced in June, vaccine-exempt faculty, staff and students will be required to participate in weekly on-campus Covid testing into the fall.

People who develop Covid-like symptoms will also be required to test regardless of vaccination status. Symptomatic students will test through the Health Center, while symptomatic faculty and staff should contact your healthcare providers. As was the case last year, the college testing site will not be available for symptomatic testing, and if you have symptoms you may not test there.

Optional testing for everyone

We will continue to offer optional weekly testing for any vaccinated faculty or staff member or student who wants it. The CDC does not currently recommend routine testing for asymptomatic individuals who have been fully vaccinated, and we do not recommend it for everyone. But we recognize that it could enable some people to feel safe during the transition back to a fully on-campus community. Look for details soon about signup, location and schedule.

Mandatory arrival testing for students

We will require arrival testing for all students this fall, regardless of vaccination status.

Vaccinated students will not be required to quarantine, although we will ask you to mask until you receive a negative result.

Vaccine-exempt students and those who have begun but not completed the vaccine sequence will have to quarantine in your rooms (with the exception of picking up meals) until you receive negative results from your arrival tests, which will typically be 24-48 hours after testing.

International arrivals

Anyone arriving from an international location, regardless of your citizenship, should review and adhere to the CDC rules and guidelines for international travel. Students arriving from international locations will be required to complete two tests with negative results: one at arrival time and a second one three to five days later.

Publishing test result data

The college will continue to operate our Covid dashboard this fall, with revisions to accommodate the results of optional testing.

Student move-in

Students, you will receive a followup email from Marlene shortly that explains all the details of arrival and move-in, including rules about how family members and friends can help you move into your living spaces.

Returning to campus work

As a reminder, the college made a commitment that staff would have until August 31 to shift back into on-campus workspaces. This deadline is still in effect and we expect all staff to return by the end of this month as requested. We know many staff have already returned to campus or plan to do so prior to the deadline. An earlier return will be extremely helpful to our facilities and OIT staff.

Staff colleagues, please share any questions with your managers so they can provide input to the Operations group and Senior Staff for deliberation.

Again, we will monitor the public health situation and can always announce a change in course later if necessary.

Caring for non-Covid illnesses

Many viruses and respiratory illnesses are circulating in our region at any given time, and their symptoms may resemble those of Covid. If you might have a contagious illness of any kind we urge you to stay home and recuperate or seek medical care if necessary. This was our expectation before the pandemic, and now the stakes have been raised. There is nothing heroic about risking your or other people’s health by coming to work or class while you are ill.

Employees, please use sick time for this purpose. Students, your professors will appreciate you promptly informing them of absences and can help you schedule makeup work.

If you have a respiratory illness that has been confirmed not to be Covid and you must be out on campus (for example, to pick up food from the dining hall), please wear a mask while doing so.

Community compact

Williams is taking all reasonable steps to provide a safe in-person education for students and a safe workplace for employees. But we are also still in a pandemic: changes or restrictions to college, county or state policies may be necessary at any time. By coming here, we all commit to abiding by the protective measures and public health rules in effect from time to time.

As an added note, while our Williams guidelines tend to parallel the state’s, there may come times when we choose a different course. If that happens we will announce it and explain our reasons.

Contingencies

We are continuously monitoring county Covid data as well as research on vaccine efficacy. Several contingencies are already built into the plan:

For example, as of now the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has communicated a clear expectation that the state’s K-12 schools should reopen for in-person education this fall. If that were to change, we would announce a revised approach for Williams that accounts for the impact on our families.

Similarly, if state or county numbers increased, particularly those related to hospitalizations and mortality, we would revise our campus rules and expectations accordingly. This could include mask mandates, mandatory surveillance testing or other measures.

While nothing is off the table, moving to remote learning is an extreme step that we reserve for emergencies. That was the case last year, when the pandemic was at a peak and vaccines were not yet widely available. Now that our campus community is overwhelmingly vaccinated, with reliable protective measures available for unvaccinated people, we will not offer remote classes at the start of the term. But as we always do, we will continue to watch for developments and let you know if anything changes.

This is a lot to take in. I am sure that many of you are, like me, feeling some combination of yearning for an end to the pandemic and anxiety about the news and the uncertainties. It would not be possible for me to solve everything with one campus email. But I hope this preview brings some specificity that helps you with your own planning.

Finally, many people have mentioned mental health to me as a concern. Some expressed anxiety about coming back, while others, including many students, feel an urgent need to return. Wherever you fit on that spectrum, please take this as a time to be kind to yourselves and those around you. Although the national spike in infections is concerning, there is good reason to conclude that a substantially vaccinated and careful community like ours can gradually return to the work and rewards of a living, learning and working environment like ours.

I hope you safely enjoy the remaining days of summer, and I look forward to welcoming you to our new academic year in September.

Maud S. Mandel
President
Professor of History; Program in Jewish Studies