Students at Amherst College raised a ruckus after the school imposed harsh COVID-19 protocols, including mandatory testing twice a week, double masking indoors (unless students use a KN95 mask), and a ban on indoor dining off-campus. More than 400 students sent an open letter to the administration to complain, but the college's president stood by the protocols, only relaxing an outdoor mask mandate.
An Amherst College spokesperson confirmed to FOX Business on Tuesday that the school is standing by the stringent protocols, citing a letter from President Biddy Martin responding to the irate students.
According to the college's website, students must get vaccinated – with only exemptions for medical or religious reasons – in order to attend. They must have taken the second vaccine shot at least two weeks before classes. While indoors, students must wear KN95 masks or "doubled (two masks on top of one another) disposable, pleated, filter face masks." While outdoors, students must have a mask on hand and wear the mask "when in high-density gatherings for a sustained time period (10-15 minutes or longer)."
Students must take a COVID-19 test upon arriving on campus, and afterward, they must take tests twice per week. The college website says, "We anticipate moving to weekly surveillance testing after September 13, depending on local health conditions." The college also limits students' off-campus travel. While students "may visit the town of Amherst, masked while indoors, in order to conduct business (opening bank accounts, picking up prescriptions, etc.) during regular business hours," they "may not go to restaurants or bars."
These restrictions apply to students who have gotten vaccinated at least two weeks before class, and who tested negative for COVID-19, twice weekly.
Martin, the college president, called the delta variant of COVID-19 a "game-changer," noting that "increases in infections and hospitalizations in Massachusetts continue." She urged students, "Now is not yet the time to relax key restrictions."
Yet the students did not request a relaxing of all restrictions. Rather, the open letter demanded an explanation as to why Amherst's COVID-19 restrictions are more stringent than those of other colleges.
"These guidelines are significantly more restricted than our peer institutions. We ask for an explanation of what makes the environment at Amherst so different from similarly sized and located colleges," the students wrote in the open letter.
"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," the students noted. "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 wrote.
Furthermore, the students pointed out significant differences between Amherst rules and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"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.’"
The students argued that "an outdoor mask mandate is essentially going against the science that we have observed about the transmission of COVID-19 so far."
They also noted that "the CDC discourages double masking with two disposable masks. This is in direct conflict to the bullet point in your email that suggested double disposable, pleated face masks. The CDC website specifically tells individuals NOT to do this very thing, saying that ‘disposable masks are not designed to fit tightly and wearing more than one will not improve fit.’"
While Martin and Amherst held firm on most COVID-19 restrictions, the college president made one concession.
"[O]ver the past two days we have come to agree that the outdoor mask mandate for virtually all situations is unworkable. Despite the evidence of transmission outdoors, the risk is still relatively low, so we will change our guidance," Martin wrote. The college only relaxed the outdoor mandate slightly, still requiring masks in high-density gatherings over a sustained time period.
Martin defended the ban on students going into "restaurants, indoor cafes, or bars," claiming that these institutions are "high-risk."
"At two universities with summer terms, 80% of the positive cases involved vaccinated students who were also symptomatic, though not seriously so, and many of those cases of infection occurred in the context of dining—in dining halls, residence hall lounges with too many students, and restaurants," the president wrote.
Martin did not defend the twice weekly testing or the double masking in her letter.