As Delta Variant Surges, College Tightens Covid Rules in Spite of Student Protests

Amid concerns surrounding the Delta variant of Covid-19, the college announced on Tuesday that it has tightened its public health rules for the first two and a half weeks of the fall semester. The announcement has generated backlash among students who say the new rules are too restrictive.

As the Delta variant continues to plague the nation, the college announced on Tuesday that it has tightened its public health precautions for the first two and a half weeks of the Fall 2021 semester (from move-in to Sept. 13). The restrictions include: indoor double-mask mandates, two Covid tests upon arrival, a bi-weekly testing requirement, limits on indoor gathering sizes, off-campus travel restrictions and an elimination of in-person dining services.

These restrictions were put into place on Aug. 24, and represented an increase from the rules outlined in a previous announcement made eight days prior. The new protocols caused significant student backlash, including an open letter signed by over 250 students asking the administration to reconsider the changes.

Last spring, the college announced that all students, faculty and staff must be fully vaccinated to return to campus, with exceptions granted only on medical or religious grounds. Students must verify their vaccination status on the student health portal prior to arriving.

Covid-19 Safety Precautions

Despite protests from students, parents and alumni, the college has decided to carry over — and in some cases increase — restrictions from the summer term due to the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Upon arrival, students will receive both a PCR test and a rapid antigen test.

The college has decided that in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anyone who has tested positive for Covid will be put into isolation for 10 days in either designated dorm rooms or at home for students and staff respectively. The college is not offering standard remote learning options this year, but class deans will assist quarantined students so that they will not fall behind on school work.

Close contacts of Covid-positive individuals who have been fully vaccinated and are asymptomatic will not need to quarantine but will be tested more frequently and advised to avoid close contact with other community members.

Students will be permitted to visit the town of Amherst, masked when indoors, for the purpose of “conducting business” (i.e. opening bank accounts and picking up prescriptions). Students are not allowed to go to restaurants or bars.

Events and sports competitions are slated to take place as scheduled. Spectators are allowed but must be masked. No pre or post-game tailgating or celebrations will be permitted. Large events will be minimized and there will be no registered parties indoors on the campus grounds. No events with alcohol will be permitted at the beginning of the semester.

In an email to the college community, President Biddy Martin stated that the college expects to be able “to relax some of the rules when [it is] confident the virus is not harder to control than we had predicted and is not beginning to take an even more virulent form.”

Amherst will require all employees, faculty and students to wear face coverings while inside campus buildings — regardless of their vaccination status, according to an email sent from Martin on Aug. 16. The masking requirement was enhanced as of Aug. 24: all students must double-mask (wear two pleated filter masks on top of one another) if they are not wearing a KN95 mask in classrooms and other academic spaces operating at 100 percent capacity.

As of Aug. 19, less than 1 percent of students have requested a vaccine exemption. The college is still in the process of verifying vaccine status[es] for staff and faculty as they return to campus over the course of August, Chief Communications Officer Sandy Genelius wrote to The Student.

Community members could originally unmask in their residence halls, but that is no longer the case. Masks are now required to be worn in residence hall common areas, until at least Sept. 13. Students may unmask in their own dorm rooms. Alternatively, when indoors and outside of their residence halls, unvaccinated students must be masked at all times unless they are alone with the door closed. If outdoors, unvaccinated students must wear face coverings when a six-foot distance cannot be maintained. All community members must mask up if they are attending a gathering of more than 25 people, regardless of the location on campus.

Student Reactions

Many students had expected the original masking mandate. “I don’t think I was surprised with the masking mandate given that these expectations were communicated at the end of last semester and through the spring,” said Isabelle Lobo ’22. “I think it’s a reasonable protocol to put in place given that the Delta variant cases are on the rise.”

Ella Vacchi ’23 expressed a similar sentiment: “Given the more we’re learning about Delta and the other variants daily, especially in the first few weeks of classes, it would be foolish to not have [a mask mandate].” Vacchi is hopeful that the administration will reassess further into the semester and consider a reduction in masking restrictions at that time.  

“We believe that our focus on providing for the health and safety of our community was a critical factor in navigating last year successfully,” Genelius told The Student.

Despite the general acceptance of the original mandate, the enhancement of Covid restrictions on Aug. 24 prompted significant student opposition. An open letter, signed by over 250 students as of Aug. 26, called on the administration to be more transparent about its decision-making process, factor in student voice and repeal some of the new restrictions that the letter argues are unnecessary and unduly harsh.

“This updated set of guidelines appears to be out of line with the current CDC, state, local, and peer institution standards for COVID-19 response, and we demand revision and clarification,” the open letter read. “It is currently challenging to believe that Amherst remains committed to our full student experience, and difficult to regain the typical enthusiasm that comes with returning to campus each fall.”

Liam Loveless ’24 was saddened by the fact that another unrestricted semester has been lost to the virus, even though he understands the need for masks because Amherst students are arriving from areas with a high spread of Covid. He expressed that “it was definitely a bummer to see mask mandates when we all hoped we were going to have a normal semester.”

Other students noted several inconsistencies in the restrictions. For example, Declan Sung ’23 had a hard time understanding the logic behind mandating masks inside all campus buildings except the residence halls. He cited that “there [should be] data and risk assessments that the administration is using to base their decisions off of. Otherwise, certain restrictions may appear unnecessary and illogical.”

Valentine Dining Hall Reopening?

After shutting its seating to students for the last three semesters, Valentine Dining Hall (Val) was slated to reopen with a reduced capacity of 50 percent. However, now that the college has changed its protocol, all students will retrieve to-go style meals and will eat in tents outdoors. Campus dining will not be available to faculty and staff for the first few weeks of the semester.

For food pick-up, students will get meals at the main service area of Val, the Lewis-Sebring dining location and “grab-and-go” self-service in Keefe Campus Center Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Unlike the previous, restricted semesters, students will have the option of purchasing takeout food from local restaurants having it delivered in a contactless manner to the door of their residence hall.

“Fall semester will continue to offer the to-go containers to all students. There will be a large tent on Val Quad for outdoor dining.” Director of Dining Services Joe Flueckiger relayed.

For many students, the prospect of Valentine Dining Hall opening — even at a reduced capacity — was exciting. Loveless had yet to fully experience eating in Val. He said, “I only got to experience Val on my recruiting trip to Amherst in 2019, but it was a lot of fun eating with the swim team then so I’m sure me and my friends will enjoy being able to go to Val everyday.”

Others were skeptical of Valentine’s reopening. “As for Val, it’ll be a disaster. The college is very overenrolled this year, and Val is already tight in normal years at full capacity,” Vacchi stated.

“I appreciate the attempt at allowing distance for eating, but the reality is that just won’t happen; people move furniture to make mega tables in normal years, now they’ll just have to drag them a little farther. The tents are helpful, but what do we do come late October when it gets cold?” Vacchi added.

Information Regarding The Delta Variant

The Delta variant, currently the most widespread coronavirus strain in the U.S., is more contagious than earlier variants. It may also cause more hospitalizations in unvaccinated individuals, who are the greatest concern.

Widespread vaccination remains the key strategy to combat and control the Delta variant. Being vaccinated reduces the risk that an individual will contract Covid-19. Additionally, recent research has found that fully vaccinated people remain contagious for a shorter period of time.

The CDC released updated mask-usage guidance for fully-vaccinated individuals on July 27 after a Delta-induced outbreak in Barnstable County, MA following the July 4 weekend.

A subsequent report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that the viral load in vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals did not differ, suggesting that infected people who are vaccinated could still spread the virus once infected as easily as the unvaccinated. Vaccinated individuals should wear masks indoors in areas of high or substantial transmission, the CDC concluded from the DPH report.

As of Aug. 26, Hampshire County, MA has substantial transmission.