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One Emerson: No Margin for Error


The uncertainty of the past few months has given way to the reality of the start of fall term. Move-in appeared to go extremely smoothly. Students are adjusting to the requirements of regular COVID tests, quarantining, wearing their face coverings, and generally making the best of a strange situation. To those of you in Boston who have been taking the new guidelines seriously, THANK YOU.

Blissful Ignorance or Willful Disobedience?

Having said that, we have, unfortunately, already had a handful of incidents in which students have violated room capacities, gathered in large (and small) groups without face coverings, and not observed the 6-foot distancing requirement. Surprising? Maybe not — it’s the first few nights of a new school year and students want to get out to see each other.

But here’s the thing: That’s not going to work right now. It just isn’t. This virus does not observe good intentions or unfortunate accidents, and can be as likely to cause infection from blissful ignorance as from willful disobedience. Most of the situations we have been made aware of are not the result of students actively trying to cause problems; rather, they let down their guard as they settle into our home. The common theme is all of these scenarios could have been avoided. The common result is that some students have been required to go into quarantine or isolation.

There Is No Margin for Error

A number of colleges and universities have already suspended students or, in some cases, shut down campus and sent students home after attempting to re-open. It probably goes without saying that we don’t want that to happen. A lot of people have worked very hard all summer to make it possible for students to return to Boston or to study online, as they preferred. We would like to keep campus open as long as it is safe to do so. If you came back to Boston, we assume you would like campus to stay open too.

I’m not writing to scold — or at least not entirely. Humans are social creatures. We’re not designed to stay 6 feet away from each other. A huge part of the college experience is connecting, making friends, and building relationships, all of which makes it really difficult to keep physically distant.

Op-ed pieces appeared all summer saying that college students couldn’t do what they needed to keep their campuses safe and open. We disagreed, and we still do.

But to make this work, every single one of us has to start remembering and reminding ourselves — and others — to work against our social instincts all the time. Don’t hug your friend who you haven’t seen all summer. Don’t fist bump or shake their hand. Don’t stand together looking at a phone. Don’t cram into a res hall room together to watch a movie. Don’t gather in a huddle on the street, even when it gets cold. Don’t share drinks, good, cigarettes, or anything that has come into contact with your — or someone else’s — mouth or nose.

Social distancing applies even when you are:

  • Outdoors in great weather
  • Indoors in bad weather
  • Wearing a face covering
  • The recent recipient of a negative test result
  • Anywhere off campus
  • Somewhere with no staff around

Social distancing always applies. It’s not something to do just because someone is telling you to do it. It’s something for YOU to take responsibility for as a member of this community.

I wrote it last week and will say it again: Want to stay safe? Move through your day assuming that everyone around you is positive. It’s a little scary, and that’s the point: It should cause us all to remember to stay back, no matter how much we like, love, or trust someone else. That’s what this is going to take.

Success this fall will require self-discipline to avoid situations that put yourself at risk. This is unfortunate and unpleasant, as it means you should limit the circle of people you eat meals with, hang out with, and see off campus. You should not linger at tables in close proximity after meals, and especially not without a face covering. It means you should limit your walks across the Common to small groups. Four or fewer is best.

If you want to express concern for COVID-19-related behavior or community concerns, or report any potential violations of COVID-19 policies, please use the COVID-19 Policy Report Form. To be clear, we don’t relish having a reporting process for this purpose. But people’s health, their feeling of safety, and their ability to fully participate in the activities of the College are at stake.

Our Community Standards office is addressing incidents as they take place. We are really, really hoping they won’t be kept busy — because if they stay busy, you may all be going home.

About Those Negative Test Results…

You may have a negative test, and so may everyone around you. But a negative test is not an “I’m all clear, I can go hang out with people!” pass. Because while you may know where you’ve been since you took your last test, you don’t know where everyone else has been every moment since they took their last test. A negative result is a snapshot of a moment in time, and that’s it. As soon as you walk out of the test center, you are open to exposure, and so is everyone else.

Testing keeps a community safer. It identifies COVID after it’s already present in an individual so that we can isolate the affected person and work quickly to stop the spread using contact tracing. Getting a negative result doesn’t mean you’re all set and safe moving forward. It does not create a forcefield that protects you from the virus. Do not let a negative test result create a false sense of safety. You still need to keep yourself, and everyone else, protected.

Please Do Not Travel

We’ve been flooded with requests and notifications of intent to travel. WE STRONGLY DISCOURAGE TRAVEL OUTSIDE OF MASSACHUSETTS. Of course, a family emergency or job interview could be cause for exception. We need you to be discriminating in evaluating your requests. For any travel outside of your regular routine, as yourself: Is it really worth the risk? Truly? If you do leave Massachusetts, you will be required to quarantine again, pending the receipt of a negative test result, which includes missing in-person classes until you do.


Some of our students are already quarantining again, not as part of their initial quarantine following the baseline COVID test or because they traveled, but because they had close contact with someone who turned out to be positive. And here’s the thing — we could end up in situations where Person #1 is positive and enters isolation, Person #2 has to quarantine because they were identified as a close contact of #1, and Person #3 — who doesn’t know #1 and has never interacted with them — also has to quarantine because they are a close contact of #2. (Take a moment to puzzle that out, or just know that we’re talking about a ripple effect.)

Not everyone who has interacted with a test-positive person will be asked to quarantine, and not everyone in the “Person #3” category will be asked to quarantine, either. Contact tracers gather information and use a set of guidelines to determine who needs to quarantine. But some will need to do so. I think we can all attest to the fact that quarantining is not a lot of fun. Being told you can’t go anywhere or see anyone is not why anyone comes to college. So please keep in mind that not only are you at risk for quarantining if you don’t follow guidelines, you may end up being responsible for causing other people to quarantine as well.

Obviously, even more serious than quarantining is the possibility that you could contract the virus or pass it along to others.

Don’t want to quarantine or potentially cause others to quarantine? Want to keep yourself and others healthy? We all know the best steps to do so, we just have to do them. Stay 6 feet away from others. Keep a clean, dry face covering on. Keep group sizes small, and keep your face covering on and 6 feet between each of you when together. Follow posted room capacities. Wash or sanitize your hands frequently. Keep your face coverings clean, change them daily, and swap them out during the day if they get wet or dirty. Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, or mouth. Use the ties/strings when removing or putting on your face covering, and avoid touching the front of the covering while wearing it. Don’t share food, drinks, or anything that has had contact with your mouth, nose, or breath. I’m going to repeat that last part so you can consider all the ways it might apply to you: Don’t share anything that has had contact with your mouth, nose, or breath.

Don’t become a contact.

Walking around campus, I know that most students are trying hard and doing their best. I also know this is a fluid situation. Information and recommendations change as we learn more about how this virus works. As the semester progresses, we’ll continue to provide updates and share information, suggestions, and recommendations. Please keep in touch and tell us what you need. I remain confident that together we can do this.

Take care and do the right thing,
Jim Hoppe
Vice President and Dean for Campus Life

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