By Sophia Brown and Anna Lynn Winfrey
After a semester of partial occupancy during a pandemic, the college’s only dorm with communal-style living has been shut down. Interim Dean of Students Randy Harrell, who made the decision, cited revised safety protocols for quarantining on-campus and concerns about more-contagious strains of COVID-19. However, Harrell has been criticized by student government officials and B dorm residents who were blindsided by the decision.
New College has reported 27 positive cases of COVID-19 among students and employees since the start of the pandemic, according to Yosef Shaprio, the director of environmental health & safety and emergency management. Harrell said that after more cases were reported in November, he and other members of the administration assessed the biggest vulnerabilities and implemented changes to the protocol for quarantining high-risk students.
“The bad news about B Dorm is it is the only dorm where we have true group living, and the reality is if we had a positive [case] in B dorm, all the other residents would be high risk exposures,” Harrell explained. There were 20 residents last semester, so if one of them tested positive—and there were not any positive cases at B dorm last semester—all 19 other residents would have to be quarantined in the college’s 20 quarantine rooms.
“It was in the best interest of B dorm residents and in the best interest of the campus to make the potential spread of the viruses as controlled as possible,” Harrell reflected. “It was a distinctly unpopular and uncomfortable decision that I had to make. But I’m afraid it was a decision I had to.”
B Dorm residents all learned that they would be relocated through an email sent by Stier around noon on Tuesday, Jan. 12. The email stated that all B Dorm residents had 48 hours to move out and 24 hours to secure the key to their new rooms. B Dorm’s Residential Advisor (RA), second-year Ash Hoffman, said that they hadn’t been notified of this change ahead of time and instead heard of the news alongside the other B Dorm residents.
“They gave us the reasonings as to why they were moving us, and I understand a lot of it, but there are also risks and complications with the way they did it,” Hoffman said. “Admin has not told me anything related to this.”
While the sudden relocation itself has upset B Dorm students, Hoffman also said that the timing has made things particularly difficult. They said that if administration had communicated with them in early January while students were still moving in and had not yet started work on their independent study projects (ISPs), clearing out of B Dorm could have been much less stressful and would not have set students back on their academic progress.
“I understand if this had to be done because of safety regulations, but [I wish] they had just been able to communicate this earlier, or communicated it to me at least so I could give my residents some kind of warning,” Hoffman said. “It just feels like a very inconsiderate action and very hurtful to myself and my residents to have to do all of that right now.”
New College Student Alliance (NCSA) President, second-year Sofia Lombardi, first heard about the decision when residents started texting her while she was in a meeting.
“If administration had been honest with me from the get go, I would have communicated to students immediately,” Lombardi said.
Harrell admitted that the rollout was less than ideal, but he said that he worked with residents individually and let people with extenuating circumstances take more time to move. He felt a sense of urgency and wanted to “get the ball rolling” as soon as he received approval from President O’Shea.
Vice President of Finance and Administration Christian Kinsley added that closing B Dorm does not affect the school’s overall finances.
“Students are not going to be charged anything additional,” Kinsley said. “They’ll be transferred to other on-campus housing facilities, so it really is a wash as far as the finance goes since we have available space on the east campus.”
A standard B Dorm single costs $6,700 for the academic year while a standard room in the letter dorms is $9,000, but Dean of Housing Mark Stier confirmed that they will not be charged for the difference.
In years past, B Dorm has been known for being simultaneously isolated and communal. Its distance from the rest of the residential locations on campus means that students living in B Dorm often formed their own community separate from the rest of the student population.
“Honestly, B was one of the safest places I feel like we could have been just because it’s the most secluded part of campus and most people really did not leave B Dorm,” second-year and B Dorm resident Eli Smeds said. “Because B Dorm is such a tight-knit community, everyone wants to stay safe.”
Students shared concerns on the forum at the beginning of the year that B Dorm’s communal living style was potentially hazardous, with shared bathrooms and airways connecting each room of the building. Even so, Hoffman said that residents wore masks routinely and continued to make social distancing improvements over the course of the fall semester, so they felt safe living there.
“There were maybe three to five people sharing one of the bathrooms that has three toilets and two showers,” Hoffman said, in contrast to other residential buildings where a group of two to four students living together have access to only one toilet and shower. “And every building has connected airways, that’s how airways work. I know all the other buildings are built pretty much the same.”
B Dorm residents have now relocated either to Z Dorm or to single rooms in Pei’s second court. Students with more completed contracts were given priority over the rooms in second court, and the rest were dispersed into occupied rooms in Z Dorm. Hoffman will continue duties as B Dorm’s RA by organizing virtual community meetings and resident interactions from their room in Pei.
“I feel like I’ll be a little bit safer here since I don’t have to share a bathroom with anyone,” Hoffman said. “But I do worry about the safety of the residents that had to move to Z and be put into a suite with other people that they weren’t previously exposed to in the dorm. The people in the Pei singles are guaranteed more safeness automatically, but the people in Z are a lot less safe.”
Only time will tell if the former B Dorm residents and the collective student body will be more safe because of this change. Smeds said that it is too early for him to tell, however, and expressed concerns that dispersing students in this way could prove to be counterproductive.
“I feel like it’s probably less safe now because if they were really worried about us having COVID-19, why would they disperse us into these living communities?” Smeds said.
Hoffman said that some of their residents were worried that this relocation was the beginning of an effort to permanently close B Dorm. However, Harrell assured them that B Dorm will reopen in the fall and that some renovations will take place while the building is unoccupied until August.
Kinsley added that the college has a financial incentive to re-open B dorm next fall and increase the amount of students living on campus. As a residential college, “we really can’t afford to operate like this indefinitely.”