Reports of the first positive case of COVID-19 began on day three.
On the fourth day, Jennifer Grotz, director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, sent an email notifying attendees that two participants had tested positive for the virus, which increased to six positive cases by the next day. By the end of the first week, over 26 cases had been reported at the conference—more than 10 percent of the participants.
Regardless, the 10-day event held in the mountains of rural Vermont carried on. While some arrangements were made to accommodate for the spread of COVID at the conference, the lack of preparedness in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic raises important questions. Should Bread Loaf have done more? What are the responsibilities of a community? And how can we do a better job of caring for each other in times of crisis?
Ill Writers Were Told to Go Home
The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious writing conferences. Founded in 1926, the main conference brings together writers of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction for classes, craft workshops and lectures, and readings by special guests. Bread Loaf also hosts two additional conferences focused on environmental writing and translation, respectively.
When writers fell ill at Bread Loaf they were on their own.
Bread Loaf is affiliated with nearby Middlebury College, a private liberal arts college; the conference’s COVID policies mirrored that of the school. According to the college’s website, that includes being “mask-friendly and mask-optional.” When it comes to COVID testing and isolating, students and employees follow CDC guidelines. Those current guidelines place the bulk of responsibility for preventing the spread of COVID and managing cases onto the individual.
Chief health officer for Middlebury College, Mark Peluso, said in a video recorded for students in the summer sessions, “By focusing on individual responsibility and CDC guidance, we haven’t needed special isolation spaces, meal delivery or other supports that were utilized in earlier stages of the pandemic.”
That meant when writers fell ill at Bread Loaf they were on their own.
Writers were advised to go home. Individuals actively ill with COVID had to arrange—and pay for—their own transportation out of remote Vermont; the closest major airport to the Middlebury campus is in Burlington, 44 miles away. Not only did such an eviction endanger the health of other travelers, but it had the potential to make an active COVID case much worse since part of the recommendation for treatment is to rest and avoid all unnecessary activity, like travel. The conference did, according to VTDigger, provide an isolation space for “a few who could not leave.”
In the days since the story of the COVID spread broke, the conference also announced, via an email, that it was offering “a prorated refund of the tuition, room, and board payment” to infected writers who had to leave. Participants who tested positive were later invited to participate in the conference via Zoom and audio and video recordings.
While these efforts were made to include those ill with COVID, a more thoughtful approach to the conference could have prevented the spread of the virus in the first place.
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One tactic might be a closer consideration of community care. A form of compassion and a way to leverage one’s own privilege to help others, community care is designed to uplift whole communities rather than focusing on the individual. As Healthline describes, “A part of community care is assessing what others may need, offering to provide it, and following through when the offer is accepted.” For example, rather than ordering ill people to leave, ask them if they would prefer to go home or to rest in a provided space.
Healthline also writes, “Easing the burden other people carry and speaking up so they don’t have to is an important part of community care.” The outbreak at Bread Loaf came to light only when several participants who contracted COVID spoke out about the conference’s mishandling of the spread. One of those whistleblowers was Caitlin Eichorn, a nonfiction writer, whose partner and foster child also contracted the virus when she returned home. Eichorn wrote about the lack of transparency regarding the outbreak, that guests to Bread Loaf “kept showing up, not knowing what they were walking into.”
Part of being a community is looking out for all members, including people who may be disabled.
While not required to go beyond the COVID policies of Middlebury College, the conference could have done more, including immediate and clear notification of the first COVID case as soon as it was reported, a planned isolation space for cases, and, from the beginning, a remote option in place for at-risk participants or those who feared for their health.
Another writer who contracted COVID at the conference, Laura Mauldin, a disability studies scholar, was one of the few to wear masks and socially isolate from the start of Bread Loaf. Despite her precautions, as she said, “There is no amount of me doing my individual best that can overcome a failure of community policy.”
Leaving Disabled Writers Out
Like most artistic organizations, Bread Loaf prides itself on being a community. But part of being a community is looking out for all members, including people who may be disabled, immunocompromised, or at higher risk of severe infections.
Bread Loaf had indoor classes, indoor meals, large indoor readings—even a barn dance—and no mask or vaccine requirements. Compare that to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which required masking, and provided free, high-quality masks and COVID tests. Sewanee also had a plan in place to isolate and deliver food to any participants who became ill. As writer Natasha Oladokun wrote, “in Sewanee’s case, firm measures ensured that everyone was equipped to care for each other.”
By considering disabled people when it came to COVID protocols and response, all participants at the conference stood to benefit.
Sewanee and the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop were among the writing conferences that offered medical deferments this year in case a participant was exposed to COVID before attending. Bread Loaf did not. Such a lack of precautions may have deterred disabled writers from even applying to the conference, isolating a marginalized group even further and sending them the message they do not belong.
Disabled writers are already underrepresented in creative writing. According to the 2020 Diversity in Publishing study from Lee & Low Books, 92 percent of people in publishing are non-disabled.
Bread Loaf did not consider the needs of all participants, some of whom were disabled, immunocompromised, or at greater risk of COVID due to chronic illness. According to the Maryland Institute College of Art, community care means, “that we look out for each other, that we take an interest in and work to address the physical, emotional, and health and safety wellbeing of all community members. The needs of one are often the needs of many.” And by considering disabled people when it came to COVID protocols and response, all participants at the conference stood to benefit from greater protection against the virus—and a greater sense of togetherness.
At Bread Loaf this year, “disabled or chronically ill people were not prioritized,” Maudlin said. “When we don’t prioritize them, we’re saying that we’re OK with either leaving them out or with harming them.”