Vermont colleges redesign on-campus life to welcome students back

The campus of Northern Vermont University-Lyndon in Lyndonville on Sept. 12, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

At Northern Vermont University, which has struggled with declining enrollments, administrators once wondered what to do with the school’s increasingly empty residence halls.

Now, the extra space is coming in handy. To accommodate social distancing, every student that returns to campus in the fall will be assigned a single-occupancy dorm.

As summer gets underway, colleges in Vermont are busily planning for their reopening. Most have signaled they plan to bring students back for in-person instruction — despite the ongoing pandemic — and are now releasing a raft of plans for how to do so safely. But despite detailed efforts to mold the on-campus experience to minimize transmission of Covid-19, there are questions about how realistic the expectations are. 

At NVU, administrators plan to bring students back a week early, on Aug. 18, teach through Labor Day, and eliminate their traditional October break. In-person instruction will stop just before Thanksgiving, and final exams will be delivered remotely. Other colleges, including the University of Vermont, are also modifying their academic calendars to cut down on travel to and from the colleges.

“I think we’re in a great position to create a reasonably safe atmosphere for our students. And we’re excited to have them back,” said Jonathan Davis, NVU’s dean of student life.

St. Michael’s College is shifting its schedule earlier and possibly adding some Saturday or evening classes, so that courses can fully cover material before in-person teaching ends at Thanksgiving. In addition to modifying its calendar, Champlain College is offering both students and faculty flexibility on whether to attend classes in person or remotely.

At Sterling College in Craftsbury, school officials say students will live, study, and eat in assigned “pods” of between seven and 16 students. Megan Banner Sutherland, the school’s dean of student life, said the school thinks the cohort model will work well given Sterling’s rural setting and residential character. Its size should help, too — there are only about 110 students expected next year.

“If there is a case of Covid and there needs to be contact tracing and have quarantines put in place, it potentially will only affect one pod, possibly two pods and not the whole campus,” she said.

At Middlebury College, which released a first look at its fall plans on Tuesday, officials say they are partnering with the Massachusetts-based Broad Institute to test every student as they return to campus.

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Students at the private liberal arts school are expected to remain in quarantine in their dorm rooms for 24 hours until results are available, and meals will be delivered to their rooms during that quarantine period. Another test will be conducted a week later.

Faculty at Middlebury will also be given the option to choose whether to teach remotely or in person. Staff at other schools are hoping for similar arrangements; Julie Roberts, the president of the faculty union at UVM, said professors at the state’s flagship public university are seeking the same commitment from administrators.

Across the state’s institutions of higher education, officials are upfront about the fact that many details have yet to be worked out. The Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development is also expected to weigh in with guidance, which they are crafting in concert with the state’s education and public health authorities. Ted Brady, ACCD’s deputy secretary, said the guidelines — some of which will be mandatory — should be out in early July.

The colleges are also turning to the state for help to defray the cost of temperature-checking equipment, masks and widespread testing regimens. The Senate Education Committee has endorsed a plan to send an additional $5 million to the state’s private colleges from Vermont’s federal coronavirus relief package.

But while schools are investing heavily in new equipment and redesigning working and living spaces to cut down on in-person interactions, many — including faculty and staff — are expressing growing concerns that reopening plans also engage in some level of wishful thinking.

University Row on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington on June 6, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Jamie Abaied, an associate professor in UVM’s Department of Psychological Science, says she’s not sure how realistic the university’s expectations are regarding student behavior.

Abaied, a developmental psychologist who specializes in the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, notes the school’s rules rely on undergrads to exhibit a high degree of self-regulation. Students will be expected to wear masks when outside their dorm rooms, to log behaviors into an app that the university is still developing, and take a pledge to uphold the university’s health and safety standards.

“The brain circuitry involved in self-regulation doesn’t reach maturity until our mid-20s. And the parts of the brain that respond to the rewards associated with risky choices are highly reactive in this age group,” she said.

Abaied added she’s sure many students will be conscientious and do their best to follow the rules. But in a lot of ways, she said, the university is asking more of its 18-year-old students than its adult employees.

“We get to go home at the end of the day, and, you know, we don’t have to wear our masks on the way to the bathroom,” she said.

Jasper Goodman and Grace Elletson contributed reporting.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 6:15 p.m. to include details about fall semester plans at Champlain College and St. Michael’s College.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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