Williston School riding through pandemic with in-person learning, low virus cases

  • Students on the Williston Northampton School Campus Tuesday afternoon, February 23, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Students on the Williston Northampton School campus Tuesday afternoon in Easthampton.

Staff Writer
Published: 2/23/2021 5:51:45 PM

EASTHAMPTON — In a year marked by abnormality, students at Williston Northampton School have maintained some sense of normalcy on campus under regulations that have limited many activities but kept the school’s COVID-19 case count low.

Students have attended class in person since returning to the private day and boarding school in late summer, with “a handful of student cases and employee cases” occurring, said Williston’s director of communications, Ann Hallock. According to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard, Williston has recorded a total of 20 cases since August, with eight among students and 12 among employees or their family members who come to campus. The school has administered a total of 16,750 tests.

These cases generally occurred as isolated incidents, Hallock said, and did not necessitate a shift to remote learning.

“Generally speaking, we’ve had someone who knew they might have been exposed,” Hallock said, “then quarantined and got tested, and then we found out they tested positive, so we’ve been able to keep from having an outbreak.”

Like many colleges, Williston, which hosts a significant number of boarding and international students, adjusted its calendar to anticipate COVID-19 surges around the holidays and allow students who travel home for longer periods to see their families and quarantine before returning to campus. About 70% of students board at the school, which is located in and around the city’s downtown.

Classes commenced before Thanksgiving and started up again in late January, and students went through two rounds of COVID-19 testing upon returning to campus, Hallock said. Students also will have a three-week-long spring break next month, rather than the usual two-week vacation.

Of the school’s 479 students, 406 currently attend classes in person while 73 opted to remain remote due to travel difficulties or personal preferences.

Strict regulations

Williston allows students to leave campus for limited purposes, such as picking up takeout or grab-and-go coffee. But activities such as indoor dining or in-store shopping are prohibited. The school’s shuttles to Northampton also have been placed on pause this year.

Additionally, students must adhere to standard social distancing policies such as wearing a face mask at all times around others, and the school has adjusted its dining areas and schedule while using large, non-standard rooms, such as the gymnasium and dance studio, for in-person learning.

While the reopening and its strict regulations have posed challenges for everyone, Hallock said returning to campus and in-person classes have lifted the mood among students.

‘When you see the students here and see them having some sense of normalcy … you can see how rewarding it is for them to be able to be together,” Hallock said. “Even though it’s not exactly as it has been during a normal year, it definitely feels like it has been worth it to make that possible.”

Though many regular activities are barred under COVID-19 regulations, students and faculty have found creative ways to allow for safer socialization during the winter months, such as ice skating on the campus’ frozen pond, snowball fights or warming up by fire pits on the quad.

“The students themselves have been really resilient in terms of quickly adapting to rules,” Hallock said, “and also coming up with ways to still have fun that are safe.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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