Town - Gown lessons learned from the pandemic.
Colleges created testing centers, developed contract tracing teams, implemented policies that reduced the movements of students, implemented vaccine mandates, and even redesigned eating facilities all to reduce the spread of COVID during the pandemic. However, due to the very nature of campus life, many colleges had a higher incidence of positive COVID cases than the community where the college was located. This created great strains on the town-gown relationship, especially if not enough had been done to foster that relationship prior to the pandemic.
Many cities and towns reported the number of new COVID cases and those still in isolation on a daily basis. This information in Massachusetts was used to identify municipalities by color code in terms of their risk. For communities with college campuses, the numbers were often higher than in surrounding communities creating great concern among the residents of that community. Interestingly if a student was diagnosed on a college campus and was sent home to a community in another state that positive case was reported in the community where they were diagnosed. With no real attempt to report the data in a way that separated the student population from the remainder of the residential population, the question was often asked, “Is living near a college campus riskier during a pandemic than living far away from one?”.
Not a positive experience
I recall attending a selectboard meeting in the town where the college I worked for was located. I was the representative of the college at the meeting and heard from several of the selectboard members about their concerns that the college was not doing enough to keep the town safe. They even wondered out loud about whether the college should remain open during the pandemic. It was not a pleasant meeting and even after providing detailed information about all the college was trying to do to mitigate the spread of the virus, the opinion of some of the board members did not change. The data did not support the increased transmission of the virus from college students to others in the community, but that didn’t matter. The college was actually doing more than the town in terms of isolating positive cases, quarantining close contacts, and implementing surveillance testing (up to three times per week). But this was a time when blame was common and my experience was not much different from the experience of other college vice presidents based on my conversations with my higher education peers.
The response by the elected officials in this community was not unexpected. I can speak from experience; I have worked both in higher education and municipal government. Oftentimes the relationship between a college and the community where it is located is based only on concerns about student behavior or zoning or land use matters. The pandemic gave one more reason why those that live close to a college campus had a reason not to like their large and noisy neighbor. Missed in the dialogue was the significant impact on local businesses that resulted from campuses being temporarily closed or students being restricted from leaving the campus. The economic impact a college has on the region surrounding the campus is not often fully understood or appreciated.
There are lessons to be learned from this experience. More should be done by colleges to foster and reinforce the positive aspects of a town-gown relationship before the next disaster or the next time that the college wants to construct a new building near a residential neighborhood. Monthly meetings between members of the college leadership team and municipal department heads would be one positive step. Jointly sponsored charitable initiatives would be another. Allowing local groups to use college facilities, adding applied research focused on local issues, and service learning are other possibilities. The point is that opportunities exist and now is the time to take advantage of those opportunities before the next town-gown challenge presents itself.