COVID-19 update: Kotz deems College’s COVID-19 handling this fall ‘generally a success’

Low masking compliance, however, may lead the College to make changes to the library’s operations.

by Adriana James-Rodil | 11/11/21 5:05am

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by Emil Liden / The Dartmouth

At the start of fall, the College adopted an indoor mask mandate, required most students and faculty and staff members to be vaccinated and pushed for weekly testing. This term has seen relatively low case counts — with a “blip” toward the end of the term, according to interim provost David Kotz — and some closures of the gym facilities.

Kotz described the implementation of vaccination, testing and masking policies as “generally a success.” According to the COVID-19 dashboard, the positivity rate for COVID-19 in the third week of October was 0.05%, with four people testing positive out of 8,017 tests. In the following two weeks, about 20 people tested positive each week — a positivity rate of around 0.25%. In the last seven days, 21 people have tested positive, yielding a positivity rate of 0.26%.

Prior to the start of the term, students had to submit vaccination documentation. Those who are unvaccinated must get tested twice a week, in addition to varsity athletes regardless of vaccination status. Faculty and staff are also required to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8, but have the option to request a religious or medical waiver.

In the last seven days, there have been 13 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 among undergraduate students, two among graduate and professional students and 14 among faculty and staff. On Oct. 29, Dartmouth identified one cluster of at least three people with COVID-19 in the student population. 

The uptick in positive cases can be traced in part to the Class of 2023 and 2024’s Fall Family Weekend from Oct. 22–24, according to Kotz. 

“We had a lot of out-of-town visitors, and I think that may have been part of the cause for the current blip, and I’m expecting that will level off and tail off soon,” Kotz said, adding that it is hard to know the exact cause of the uptick and that he is not “blaming families” nor insinuating that all current cases are the result of Fall Family Weekend.

Kotz noted that the lack of masking compliance in public indoor spaces, such as the gym and the library, may also contribute to the increase in positive cases. However, he added that masking has been “going very well” in classrooms. 

Last Friday, interim athletics director Peter Roby ’79 announced in an email to campus that the Alumni Gymnasium will be closed on Monday and Tuesday. The two-day gym closure follows last month’s one-day shutdown of the gym, and according to Roby’s email this was prompted by student non-compliance with the mask mandate and “rude, inappropriate behavior by some students toward … staff,” which he wrote has caused staffing losses and may lead to “more widespread facility closures."

According to Kotz, members of the library staff are becoming “increasingly frustrated” with students refusing to wear masks in Baker-Berry Library in particular. The staff are “disappointed” to see the lack of compliance and “microaggressions” toward workers, Kotz said, adding that inconsistent mask wearing may lead the library to “change the degree to which they’ll be open to students in the future.” 

“I would like to find a way for students to recognize that what they do [and] what they choose to do affects other people,” Kotz said.

Dean of libraries Susanne Mehrer wrote in an emailed statement that the library, much like other facilities across campus, “has been experiencing very low levels of masking compliance amongst our students throughout the term.” When students are asked to wear a mask, according to Mehrer, library staff “get a range of reactions from apologies and understanding to eye-rolling to more overtly aggressive responses.” 

“The continuing non-compliance creates a very stressful environment for all members of our community — faculty, staff and students —  who are concerned about their own health and safety and that of their loved ones,” Mehrer wrote.

Mehrer added that she is in contact with the Provost and student groups and added that discussions regarding operations for the remainder of the fall term and winter term are ongoing. 

The library’s information access assistant Wesley Benash said while he has “heard nothing about” the library potentially limiting its hours, he has “heard from other staff members who say that they have” encountered students being disrespectful when asked to wear a mask.

Benash added that he thinks the gym’s closure “really hasn’t seemed to do much” and instead “just caused a lot of people to get very angry.” 

Prescott Herzog ’25 said he opposes the library potentially changing its operations in response to students’ lack of mask compliance.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of that at all, because I feel like the libraries are an important resource for students, especially … going into finals season,” Herzog said. “That’s more of an inhibitor for people; it’s a punishment that affects everybody.”

Faculty have also found fall term difficult to navigate in the midst of COVID-19. Biology professor Kevin Peterson said he is “fairly impressed with the College’s response,” but he wishes he “had a little bit more control about mask wearing” in his classroom since he considers  discussion an important part of his teaching. 

“I wish I had more control over that because our room is so well ventilated and so big, and I feel perfectly safe without a mask in my lecture hall, but I understand the need to institute, probably, a College-wide policy,” Peterson said. “I think [masking in classrooms] is really interfering with our educational process.”  

Although the College hoped that masking and testing compliances could have been relaxed at some point during the fall term, the College chose not to for a number of reasons, including the recent increase in positive COVID-19 cases and the lack of masking compliance, Kotz said. However, he added that while he is “still hopeful that we’ll get there sometime in winter term,” it is difficult to predict given the current rise in on-campus cases and cases in New England, cold weather and the increase in indoor activities in winter term.

Some students feel that given the COVID-19 situation on campus —  there are six active cases among undergraduates and 11 among faculty and staff as of Wednesday evening, according to Dartmouth’s dashboard  — the College should reduce its regulations. Anne Guidera ’25 said she believes the policies are “a little outdated” and “unjustified” because students are complying with the masking, vaccination and testing policies, to the best of their ability. 

“I think it’s really frustrating that the College is using their authority to close the gym and possibly restrict hours at the library, because those are essential parts to student body life,” Guidera said.

Guidera added that she worries the College’s COVID-19 restrictions could pose a threat to students’ mental and physical well-being. 

“We’re doing everything in our power to stay safe, but it doesn’t really feel like the school is doing everything in their power to give us the college experience that we all want and deserve,” she said. 

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