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Saturday, Dec 9, 2023

Covid rules enforcement falls on student leaders

Dozens of pages of online instructions and 151 minutes of educational videos laid out a plethora of restrictions and regulations that were put in place to make a return to campus this fall possible. Since the majority of students returned to Middlebury last Friday, those rules have become reality. 

For the most part, students have followed regulations. By day, they widely obey mask guidelines when out in public on campus, usually only removing masks to eat meals. At the direction of staff, they follow delineated paths through dining halls, and students have taken to socializing safely in distanced settings on Battell Beach and the Knoll. 

But nighttime gatherings that exceed 10 participants, sometimes without masks, have sprung up in the past week, leaving student Residential Life workers and orientation leaders to take on new roles as disciplinary figures tasked with curtailing gatherings that violate Covid-19 guidelines. 

“For ResLife, the past three days have honestly been pretty intense,” Luisa Vosmik ’21, a Resident Assistant who works in sophomore housing, told The Campus. “We are all super excited to have residents living in our halls and to be able to put our training to use… That being said, there have definitely been some chaotic moments that were a bit disheartening. At times, it has felt as though other students don’t recognize the impact their actions might have on our ability to remain on campus.” 

Dean of Students Derek Doucet is encouraged by the low number of positive tests in Middlebury’s mandatory testing for students (since students returned to campus, two rounds of all-student testing have yielded just two positive test results). What remains essential, he told The Campus, is practicing behaviors that preserve the encouraging results first seen after processing move-in day results. “We’re open,” he wrote in an email to The Campus. “Now we have to remain sharply focused on doing what we must to stay open.”

The burden of enforcing Covid-19 regulations that seek to maintain that reality has fallen heavily  on student leaders, including Residential Life members and MiddView Orientation leaders. Student leaders “have been working tirelessly over the last week or more to help pull off the reopening,” Doucet wrote. “Without them it would not have been possible to get this far.”

While Doucet acknowledges Public Safety as an important part of the college’s enforcement policy, Maya Gee ’22, the Community Assistant for Voter Hall and Painter Hall, and other student leaders told the Campus that Public Safety has been given a reduced role this year. Unlike in previous years, Residential Life members are now expected to collect the names, and sometimes the ID numbers, of students who break college Covid-19 policies. 

Public Safety and Residential Life administrators did not respond to requests for comment by press time. 

The student leaders are expected to enforce regulations related to mask-wearing, social distancing, gathering sizes and the presence of parents during move-in. Issues within ResLife’s purview before the pandemic — such as alcohol consumption, noise complaints and large gatherings — now have higher stakes, as many of these activities can lead to increased Covid-19-related risks. Residential Life members can choose from a variety of steps in these situations, including asking students to correct their behavior, filing an incident report or calling Public Safety or their Residence Director for assistance.

“It all depends on the situation,” Gee said.

Sophie Smith ’21, a MiddView leader leading virtual first year orientation sees the role MiddView leaders are playing in enforcing Covid-19 policies as similar to that of the rest of the student body. They are tasked with providing students with reminders of Covid-19 policies, reporting through the online tool or contacting Public Safety upon noticing a Covid-19 policy violation.

Several students have already been asked to leave campus while more are awaiting appeals for violating guidelines, according to Doucet. Due to the college’s rule against disclosing details from the disciplinary process, Doucet did not specify the nature of students’ violations, but he wrote that “we’re taking a firm stance on Covid violations which expose the community to elevated levels of potential risk.”

Besides the students who have already been sent home, a number of other students have received a sanction or removal from campus housing, held in abeyance. This status indicates that if the student violates any additional Covid-19 protocol, they will be dismissed from campus. 

Following the release of first years from room quarantine, Residential Life members noted many violations of college Covid-19 policies, including reports of large gatherings of students both on Battell Beach and near the baseball field. 

“There have been groups of 10-plus the past few nights, [especially] Friday and Saturday, where students were disregarding the physical distancing requirement, even when asked repeatedly to distance and disperse into smaller groups,” Vosmik said last week. 

Gee saw some of these violations and contacted her Residence Director and Public Safety. 

“I am trying to deal with it more as a friendly reminder perspective, rather than a more enforcement perspective,” she said. While Gee said she’s fixated on helping protect the Middlebury community, she is also giving students the benefit of the doubt and recognizes that this semester has brought a lot of changes. “It is a very fine line between intentionally breaking the rules and forgetting,” she said. 

Gee said that she did not know the full extent of her responsibilities until she arrived on campus on August 18 and underwent Residential Life training. She acknowledged that the role can feel overwhelming at times. 

The boundaries of the job are changing and becoming less distinct than in previous years, Gee noted as one of the many ways in which this year is different from last year, when she served a First-Year Counselor in Battell Hall. “We feel like we have to oversee so many more things, both inside and outside,” Gee said.

“Some staff members are really struggling with not feeling burnt out, that they always have to be on,” she said. Gee feels that every time she goes outside there is constantly some small violation she could find.

Residential Life student workers have been given a $500 pay raise for the year, following salary increases that took place over the past two years. Gee said that this is not enough, but recognized the financial limitation of the college and said that “we’re getting there.” 

Residential Life workers have been instructed to never put their own health and safety at risk; if a situation arises where close contact with another student is required, they have been directed to call Residential Life administrators or Public Safety, Gee explained.

“Their job is not an easy one and we all owe them a debt of gratitude,” Doucet said, also pointing to the role MiddView orientation leaders have played in promoting and enforcing Covid-19 policies.

The college has put in place an online reporting system through which anyone can report a Covid-19 policy violation. As of early last week, roughly 30 reports had been submitted through the system. According to Doucet, each report has received follow-up, but the majority have been minor violations.

“The college is not playing around,” Gee said, explaining how each situation needs to be treated differently depending on the circumstances and the nature of the violation.

Gee said she supports the reallocation of duties to student Residential Life leaders, particularly when it comes to no longer having Public Safety officers patrol dormitories. But she added that this creates an increased level of responsibility for Residential Life and could result in a type of hierarchy among students; she noted the array of challenges that can come with trying to find a balance between holding students accountable and not making them feel over-policed by peers.

“We are really starting to move towards more of a community policing model,” Gee said.

And while Doucet acknowledged the essential role of Residential Life, he also knows that they cannot do everything. 

“We need to avoid the temptation to think of our student leaders as responsible for carrying the whole weight of this enormous undertaking for their peers,” he said.