BURLINGTON — While at least two UVM students currently in Burlington have tested positive for Covid-19, the city and school don’t actually know how many students are in town.
As part of a program, officially called the “box it in” plan, students from UVM and Champlain College were expected to follow strict quarantine protocols and register with the city. So far the city has only seen 158 people sign up for the program.
For some city officials, the number of students that have registered is a sign of good news, but UVM staff running the university’s testing site in Burlington said they were expecting 3,000 students to get tested. So far only 260 have been tested.
School officials have offered mixed numbers as to just how many students have moved back as of June 1.
UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera said the school doesn’t have a current head count.
“We don’t have a number of students who are living in town this summer,” Corredera said.
Champlain College spokesperson Leandre Waldo said in an email: “The scale of UVM’s response is necessarily larger, as the University prepared for the return of appx 4900 off-campus students this summer, while Champlain’s off-campus student population is a small fraction of that at only several hundred moving back to Burlington between June and late August.”
Zach Williamson, a city employee who has been leading the “supportive quarantine” program, said based on what the city has heard from landlords, there are fewer students in the city.
And Nancy Carney, a nurse supervisor for UVM Health Services who was running UVM’s testing site Monday, said staff had seen a very low number of students compared to the roughly 3,000 they had been told to expect, which she said is concerning.
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“It does worry me, I mean, because it was really well organized and well communicated and I’m just I’m discouraged that we didn’t get more numbers of students out here,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ve been quarantining the way they’re supposed to.”
In the neighborhoods of Burlington, students like senior nursing major Katie Picariello have echoed those concerns.
“As far as I’ve seen, none of the college kids are really doing what they’re supposed to be doing, as far as the ‘box it in’ program goes,” Picariello said. “I mean there was a party right outside my house last night.”
Picariello said she watched as one of her neighbors went to the house where the party was being held to ask them to turn down the music and be safe. The students just turned the music up louder, she said.
“I think this sheds us in a bad light, it’s just so irresponsible,” Picariello said. “I’m sure a lot of permanent residents are pissed off, I mean it’s like this disease coming towards you.”
Late at night in Burlington, the thumping of the bass and pounding beats of dance music can be heard. Local club Red Square, a popular dancing spot, has been open and there have been a few parties throughout the city.
But Picariello said even though she did not sign up for the program, she has done her best to self isolate and wear a mask around others while avoiding large gatherings, but fears that may not be enough.
“I think it’s kind of inevitable after this — it’s just too bad because college kids … don’t have to worry for their lives and so they don’t,” Picariello said. “And it’s too bad because, you know, people are going to lose their lives over it, probably.”
According to the city’s plan, the Burlington Police Department would also conduct extra patrols, funded by UVM, to make sure students were abiding by Gov. Phil Scott’s “Stay Home Stay Safe Order.”
But according to UVM, the school only funded extra patrols for the last weekend in May and the first weekend in June, Corredera said.
Williamson, who has been working with Burlington’s Resource and Recovery Center throughout the pandemic, said the city is positive about the results the program has seen, despite some concerns.
“We’re very pleased that such a high percentage of people, from where we can tell, are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Williamson said. “Of course, the optics from someone driving the street are hard to judge. It can be disheartening to drive through a neighborhood and see people outside playing a game or sitting on their porch.”
Williamson said the city was expecting more people to register for the program, but what that exact number was, is difficult to say.
“I think that, of course, everything is different, but in normal June 1 I think we would have seen a lot more out-of-state people moving in and we went into this thinking that,” Williamson said.
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But through working with the city’s permitting, housing and inspection department, officials contacted landlords who said they still have empty properties, Williamson said.
“They [landords] honestly said they aren’t full right now, that there are not as many people moving right now which is understandable,” he said. “So, not as many students, and out of state people moved back to Burlington.”
But some residents have taken to social media to post their grievances with college students failing to adhere to safety guidelines.
On Front Porch Forum, a Burlington resident voiced some concerns.
“I think having students on campus is almost inevitably going to result in many infections, and possibly deaths, to students, faculty, staff, and — equally important — Burlington residents,” the resident said.
On Monday the university announced it would reopen its campus for in-person instruction for the fall semester with classes slated to start in late August.
As UVM continues to move forward with reopening, it’s expected that more of the nearly 12,000 student population will continue to trickle into Burlington and Vermont, which may cause the city to reassess its plan, Williamson said.
Clarification: This story has been updated to more precisely describe the differing challenges faced by Champlain College and UVM in helping to contain the potential spread of the virus among returning students.
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