COVID-19 fears bring conflict to the fore

MARLBORO — While affirming its following of COVID-19 safety regimens and state government protocols with regard to the fencing camp held on the Degrees of Freedom campus in August, Seth Andrew, the founder of the nascent program told town officials that he and his team will “not be bullied or engage with anyone who continues the unfounded and xenophobic attacks on us or anyone not from Marlboro.”

In the end, town officials concluded that the participants in the fencing camp adequately followed protocols but pointed to wording on the program's website that triggered intervention from Town Health Officer Susanne Shapiro.

“I think this probably wouldn't have come to the attention or triggered Susanne's alert around the issue,” Chair Jesse Kreitzer said at the meeting.

On Aug. 27, the Selectboard acknowledged receipt of a letter from resident T. Hunter Wilson. Kreitzer read portions of the letter and subsequent correspondence among leaders of Degrees of Freedom and Shapiro.

The full text of the letters was made available to The Commons as a result of a public records request.

“We trust that you will enjoy yourselves in our town and state, but your announcement of the event has raised some misgivings related to COVID-19 precautions,” Wilson wrote to Morehouse on Aug. 20. “The town of Marlboro has yet to experience a single case, and the state has performed remarkably well right from the outset.”

One of Wilson's concerns: the reference in the fencing camp's promotional materials as access to “a nearby lake,” presumably South Pond.

“We are not sure under what auspices you made that plan, but South Pond's surrounding land and beaches are private property with controlled access, and you apparently do not have permission from the owners to go there,” Wilson added.

The longtime Marlboro College professor also expressed concern about safety for any staff, wanting “to be certain that adequate provisions have been made to avoid the possibility of transferring the virus from your participants to any of the local population.”

In response to a follow-up email from Shapiro over the specifics of the fencing program's protocols, Seth Andrew, the program's founder, categorically assured her that Degrees of Freedom, as the camp's hosts, was “adhering to both the letter and spirit of the governor's orders and will continue to do so in the interest of public health and our community.”

But Andrew characterized the spirit of the criticism as part of a pattern of hostility.

“My family lives here in Marlboro now, and anyone who thinks that we would put our staff, students, families, or neighbors at risk clearly is not acting in good faith,” he wrote.

“[O]ur intent is to keep the campus, its WiFi, and the trails, available for approved community use, but if [we] continue to experience this hostility, we may need to rethink our relationship with the Ames Hill community in particular,” Andrew wrote.

In a follow-up letter to Shapiro with details on the protocols, Degrees of Freedom Chief Growth Officer Chandell Stone acknowledged the public interest and health concerns, but wrote that “we do not believe [such concerns come] from an authentically well-intentioned place, as the individuals who are reporting to you on our movements and whereabouts are the same people who have been attempting to thwart our opening for months.”

Both Stone and Andrew reiterated their willingness to work and communicate with town officials and townspeople.

The relationship between Degrees of Freedom and its neighbors did not begin on the easiest of terms.

In the leadup to Marlboro College's sale of the campus, a group of former students and staff at Democracy Prep, a series of charter schools that Andrew founded and led for many years, leveled public accusations against him of patterns of racism, with several residents vocally supporting the effort. A number of people who pushed in vain for alternatives to Marlboro College closing and selling its campus have remained critical of multiple aspects of the transaction and Degrees of Freedom's nonprofit financial transparency.

In her correspondence, Shapiro welcomed and encouraged communication from the organization, especially regarding any future activity on the campus during the COVID-19 crisis, an invitation that Kreitzer echoed at the Selectboard meeting.

“We welcome feedback about how we can manage future communication with you and the town, as we will host additional small groups this year, and want our guests to feel welcomed in Marlboro, a sentiment they and we most definitely have not felt thus far,” Stone wrote.

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