Community Conversations: ‘A Collective Responsibility’

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Mask and testing compliance will influence whether COVID-19 policies can be relaxed.

Peter Roby in front of his computer
Interim Director of Athletics and Recreation Peter Roby ’79 participating in this week’s webcast. (Photo by Robert Gill)

Watch the Sept. 29 Community Conversations webcast with Interim Provost David Kotz ’86, Interim Dean of the College Scott Brown, Interim Director of Athletics and Recreation Peter Roby ’79, and Interim Associate Dean of Student Affairs Marianne Thomson.

As fall term unfolds and the Dartmouth community enjoys in-person classes, athletics, and seasonal activities across campus, Interim Provost David Kotz ’86 and his guests emphasized the collective responsibility to follow COVID-19 masking and testing guidelines.

Dartmouth is currently achieving its COVID-19 goals, which include maintaining the student experience while minimizing the risk of serious illness, Kotz said.

“Overall, I want to send a huge thank you to our whole community, as positivity rates have remained low since the beginning of the term,” he said. The on-campus community is 96% vaccinated—a number Kotz called “incredible”—and there has been no known transmission of COVID-19 between students and staff or faculty. As of yesterday, there were only five active cases.

Masks On

But while he’s heard positive reports about the use of face masks in the classroom, he’s also heard from students and employees who have serious concerns about a lack of masking in public indoor spaces such as West Gym and Dartmouth Library’s Baker-Berry Library, Kotz said.

Measures being taken to improve compliance include working with students and staff in the library to create fliers reminding patrons why masking is important, and with student leaders to communicate the importance of masking to their constituents.

Students who choose not to wear masks in such spaces are “making it less likely that we will be able to return to mask-free living anytime soon,” Kotz said—and continued poor compliance could lead to the closure of some public spaces and disciplinary action.

“I’m asking you all here, right now, to appreciate how your actions affect others, and to put up with a little inconvenience now, so we can keep the libraries open, keep the gyms open, and keep up the in-person activities we all so enjoy,” he said.

Employees can email to report students who are not wearing masks, not staying home when sick, or otherwise not following COVID-19 policy.

Interim Associate Dean of Student Affairs Marianne Thomson said faculty and staff are committed to continuing in-person classes, and some are concerned about students not wearing masks in public spaces.

“So many of us, me included, have little kids or others in our family and in our life who can’t be vaccinated,” Thomson said. “When you mask up, you’re showing signs of respect. You’re showing that you care about something bigger than yourself.”

Compliance with masking policies—and with the testing protocols—will help determine whether COVID-19 policies will be relaxed or tightened, said Kotz.

Students, faculty, and staff who are on campus must test at least once a week. Currently, two thirds of students are complying the testing requirements, he said, but with greater compliance, “we can have more confidence in the positivity rate being representative of the whole campus.”

Testing is becoming more convenient, as most employees and some student groups have been invited to participate in the take-home testing program, and take-home kits are expected to be available to the remaining students shortly, Kotz said. New measures to promote testing will include email reminders and consequences, and supervisors should alert Human Resources about employees who persistently don’t comply.

Interim Director of Athletics and Recreation Peter Roby ’79 noted that student athletes are being tested twice weekly and are required to wear masks on the sidelines and indoors. He called on recreational gym users to mask up as well.

“We want people to be able to exercise, to relieve stress, to be able to socialize,” but without a high rate of mask-wearing, the facility may need to close temporarily, Roby said. “Hopefully everybody will understand that we have a collective responsibility, and they will get back to it, and be more vigilant about masking.”

Building Community and Wellness

Interim Dean of the College Scott C. Brown said he considers well-being “a crucial leadership skill for our students”—one that will impact their future careers and communities.

Dartmouth is committed to community well-being and is investing in its mental health capacity by boosting the number of clinicians by 50% and partnering with the JED Foundation, a nonprofit that works to protect emotional health and prevent suicide for teens and young adults, Brown said. Rather than making mental health something dependent on a person or a small department, the partnership makes it “an institutional commitment.”

Brown also discussed related initiatives, including work by the Student Wellness Center to help students think about, and manage, what it means to be a leader on campus.

Taken together, these programs widen the circle to make sure Dartmouth is a community of care, he said, “exactly what I’d hope to see.”

Thomson said she loves seeing the natural connections among students and faculty members and encouraged students to take part in the Take a Faculty Member to Lunch program.

The program, which provides funding for a meal with friends and a faculty member, “can be a real barrier-breaker for students who might be intimidated to talk in office hours,” Thomson said. “I think anything can be solved over a good sandwich.”

Return to Work

There will be no set date for employees who are working offsite to return to campus, Kotz said—an update of the tentative return date of Oct. 4, set by the COVID-19 leadership team in August. Kotz and Executive Vice President Rick Mills announced this change in an email to the community on Wednesday afternoon.

Many Dartmouth faculty and staff are already working on-site in a variety of roles, and going forward, the leadership within schools and divisions will evaluate community needs and determine the best approach for their departments and teams, the message said.

At the discretion of supervisors, some employees will continue to work remotely or in a hybrid of remote and in-person work, using Dartmouth’s alternative work arrangement policy as a guide.

“If we later decide to set a campus-wide return date, we will provide a 30-day notice—recognizing that individual units or supervisors may need to call some or all of their staff back to on-site work on shorter notice given unexpected circumstances,” Kotz said. “This approach allows us to remain flexible while maintaining campus operations.”

The following topics were also discussed:

  • With record numbers of students on campus this term and ongoing staffing shortages, students and others have noticed long lines in Dartmouth Dining Services, said Kotz, who asked for patience as Dartmouth continues to work hard to fill positions in dining, Student Affairs, health services, and many other areas.
  • Last weekend’s Board of Trustees meeting included a tour of the new graduate student apartments under construction near Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. Slated to open next fall, the 638 new beds will dramatically expand the housing stock in the Hanover area, making it easier for all students to find a place to live, Kotz said.
  • While tents are available across campus for outdoor classes and other gatherings, faculty should remain in the classroom if students have accessibility concerns, and should provide an anonymous way to communicate such concerns.

Community Conversations is a production of Dartmouth’s Media Production Group and the Office of Communications that airs on selected Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. The next broadcast is scheduled for Oct. 13.

For the most recent information on Dartmouth’s response to the pandemic, visit the Dartmouth Together COVID-19 website.

Aimee Minbiole