Universities and colleges have responded to the pandemic with widely differing approaches from mandated vaccines to bimonthly testing. Amherst College however, stands out in its prohibition of off-campus travel without the express approval of the school. The rule has triggered a backlash by students.
Under the college’s August 25 guidelines (active through September 13), “Students may visit the town of Amherst, masked when indoors, in order to conduct business (opening bank accounts, picking up prescriptions, etc.) during regular business hours, but may not go to restaurants or bars.” However, other “off-campus travel,” with the exception of travel to other nearby universities for classes, “must be approved by the Office of Student Affairs.”
The petition currently boasts 433 signatures in opposition to the policy, Mass Live reports. The petition called for greater student input, suggesting that the college did not take their perspective into account fully before implementing the policy. The students object the Amherst is significantly more stringent than peer institutions:
At Williams, for example, vaccinated students are exempt from testing unless symptomatic for COVID-19, and do not need to wear masks outdoors or in their residence halls. Masks are only required for unvaccinated individuals or indoors during class and other academic activities. Williams students are allowed to freely engage with the community, local vendors, and restaurants. Berkshire County has similar case levels to Hampshire County. If we abide by Amherst town and Massachusetts state guidelines, traveling beyond the town of Amherst should not be greatly increasing the risk of exposure for our campus community. Smith College does not require masks outdoors, is testing vaccinated students only once a week, has a variety of dining options available including self-serve, and is not imposing any travel restrictions on their students. It is confounding that our guidelines are so different from these peer institutions.
The students further object to the lack of transparency on the supporting science and the rule on outdoor masks in light of known studies showing a low transmission in such settings:
The most recent COVID-19 guidelines on the CDC website (dated August 19th, 2021), states that “current data suggest the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in outdoor settings is minimal. In general, fully vaccinated people do not need to wear a mask outdoors. Fully vaccinated people might choose to wear a mask in crowded outdoor settings if they or someone in their household is immunocompromised.” This suggests that wearing a mask outside for vaccinated individuals is completely optional depending on their own comfort level and the size of the event. This New York Times article, entitled “A Misleading CDC Number,” puts the rate of outdoor transmission at less than 0.1%, stating that “there is not a single documented COVID-19 infection in the world from causal outdoor interaction, such as walking past someone on the street or eating at a nearby table.” As such, an outdoor mask mandate is essentially going against the science that we have observed about the transmission of COVID-19 so far.
The number of students contesting the rules is particularly significant due to the small size of Amherst of roughly 1800 students.
Notably, this does not apply to faculty members or staff members.
The limitation on travel is particularly ironic given the school’s motto: Terras Irradient (“Let them enlighten the lands”). You can still enlighten the lands but you first need to get a pass from student affairs.