John Bossange: UVM risks outbreak by opening for fall

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John Bossange, who is a lead donor to the College of Education and Social Services and the University of Vermont Foundation, and is the founding chair and a current member of the College’s Board of Advisors.

As hundreds of major universities and colleges all across America postpone or amend their fall semesters, the University of Vermont is forging ahead with regular classes with in-person instruction. That’s right, given a choice of remaining home or coming back to Burlington, close to 10,000 students chose to return to school, and will soon be back in town. I know if I were 20 years old and had been living at home since mid-March, I would welcome the opportunity to see my friends again and enjoy campus life.

However, there is a huge, frightening problem here that has little to do with UVM students. For some reason, the university administration and board of trustees is challenging the science behind the Covid crisis and the common understandings of young adult behavior. Given that 80% of the returning students will be from out of state, there is a very high probability that many will be coming from “hot spots,” on the East Coast, be asymptomatic, and could unknowingly spread the virus. How many students will follow strict testing protocols, practice social distancing, wear masks, and refrain from the norms of socializing?

Further complicating the problem will be the thousands of juniors and seniors who live off campus in crowded, converted homes. Living away from the constraints of dormitory and university housing has always attracted students to UVM. But now with the neighborhoods filled with young adults who are not under the watchful eye of the university but need to fulfill their yearly lease agreements, those homes have the potential to breed a spike of new cases. Landlords will not enforce what the university might be able to do with their on-campus living accommodations.

It seems as though the university is charging ahead to just collect fall tuition dollars. Why else would they be opening? Other institutions will be honoring the science behind the spread of the virus and have recognized that 20-year-olds are as they have always been: eager to learn and eager to socialize with their friends. Yet those schools have gone to remote learning again this fall and put the safety of their students, families and the surrounding community ahead of their financial needs.  

Some schools will only have first-year students return to experience campus life. Others are having students experience a semester in person on campus, then a remote semester off campus to cut class size in half and to provide safer dorms and housing capacity. But UVM is having none of that. They are moving forward and taking a huge risk. Even the faculty is questioning the plan to open as designed.

We all appreciate the vitality and quality of life UVM students bring to Burlington. Each fall we welcome them back to town. But this time, the leadership of the university may have failed everyone. The potential for a new Covid outbreak is very real because the president and board of trustees have created a dangerous environment for students, staff, and residents. It’s not too late to go remote again. Save the deposits for the second semester, follow the science, and take some time to plan for better learning and living accommodations for everyone.  

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