Bennington College reopens with contingency plans

An aerial view of the Bennington College campus. Photo courtesy of Bennington College.

Bennington College students arrived this week to an institution much different from the one they attended last fall, with a new president, friends in face masks, and a layout redesigned to cope with the pandemic. 

In an extensive FAQ section on the college’s website, the school’s Covid-19 task force has laid out preparations, which have already been put to the test. Of the 535 students, staff and faculty who were tested by Aug. 25, the college confirmed two positive cases of the virus. The students were each moved to dedicated isolation spaces and are receiving care, and college officials have notified others who lived in the students’ buildings.

“This was not unexpected and we have been preparing for this scenario,” wrote Laura Walker, who took over as college president this month, in a letter to the community posted after the first positive case was discovered last Tuesday. “I am pleased to report that all of our Covid-19 preparedness systems worked as planned.” 

The state Department of Health has begun contact tracing, and new cases will be reported on the college website in an effort toward transparency with students, college staff and residents.

About 520 students will be on the Bennington College campus this fall for mostly in-person learning with a number of remote options. The college’s typical enrollment is around 750 students. Students from places with high levels of the virus arrived Aug. 19-21 and quarantined in individual houses. Those who can quarantine at home will arrive Aug. 31. 

Students, staff and faculty will be tested upon arrival, again seven days later, and on a rolling basis based partly on the number of cases. They’re also required to check themselves for symptoms every day and take their own temperatures. 

During quarantine, dining services will deliver “family-style” meals to each residence hall. Dining halls will open later with reduced occupancy and options for outdoor seating. Students isolated for virus-related reasons will receive meals delivered directly to their door throughout the semester.

College officials have moved classes and gathering spaces to buildings and rooms on campus that are large enough for social distancing. Students will live in single-occupancy rooms whenever possible, and one-on-one meetings will take place remotely. 

“Every physical space on campus has been reimagined in accordance with state distancing guidelines,” the college wrote in a summary of its preparations that was delivered to the Bennington Selectboard.

College officials split the semester into two seven-week blocks, citing a large number of students who, last spring, reported difficulty managing four classes remotely. The start date for in-person classes was moved from Sept. 1 to Sept. 3 to allow time to test the second batch of students. 

Plans are adaptable, college officials say, and they’ll monitor a number of variables within the school and the community. 

Those variables include the number of positive cases, availability of testing and staffing, amount of available quarantine space, capacity of the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, and students’ compliance with a “Commitment of Shared Responsibility,” which all college community members are required to sign.  

Based on those factors, the college could reduce its hours, close spaces, change operating procedure, restrict travel and quarantine specific student houses. 

Oceana Wilson, dean of the college and head of its Covid-19 task force, said the college can also transition to a fully remote system during the semester if in-person classes become impossible. 

“One thing we’ve realized as a group is that it’s not a simple equation, like, ‘These three things add up,’” Wilson said Wednesday. “It’s a bit more nuanced. There are certainly very clear, high-concern thresholds that would move us in the direction of adding some of those measures.”

Organic chemistry professor Amber Hancock feels confident about the semester. 

“I, personally, feel excited about seeing students again and reassured that the College is being very thoughtful and thorough in planning our reopening for fall,” she wrote in an email.

Labs have been open since July as students have completed coursework for a one-year post-baccalaureate program. Those labs went smoothly, Hancock said, and she expects the same from the coming semester.

“We’ll be adding social distancing, mask wearing, combined with face shields and other safety features; but otherwise, I see the labs looking fairly similar to how they did before,” she wrote. “Most importantly, the labs will feel similar to our students.” 

So far, Bennington residents have not publicly expressed concerns about the college reopening. Asked if residents had contacted him about reopening, town manager Stuart Hurd said, “Not a thing.”

KJ Brower, owner of Marigold Kitchen Pizza, located near campus, said the college students have made up a third of his business in past years, but local support made up for that loss during the spring.

In anticipation of the coming semester, Brower said he’s already set up a delivery system with the college. 

“I know Bennington College is one of those colleges that usually looks into this stuff,” he said. “I think, right off the bat, they’d be doing the right thing.”

Laura Walker is in her first year as president of Bennington College. Photo courtesy of Bennington College.

In a 20-minute presentation to the Bennington selectboard earlier this month, Walker and Wilson walked through preparations the college has taken to prevent the spread of the virus. 

“I’m here because I know that the Bennington community and Bennington College are deeply intertwined and mutually interdependent, and there is a magical and historical bond between the two,” said Walker, who at that point had been president for a week.

The college will provide limited shuttle service into the community, and locals will be allowed to walk trails on campus as long as they wear a mask. Buildings that are typically open to the public, such as the gallery and library, will be closed to public access this fall. 

Selectboard members asked whether the college will be able to keep up with testing expenses and demand. Reduced travel expenses have helped to make up for the cost of testing, said Brian Murphy, vice president for finance and administration. Officials will take the availability of testing into consideration as they continue to re-evaluate their operations.

Select board member Jeanne Connor asked about managing large gatherings. “I was in college at one point in my life, and those were really fun,” she said. “That’s going to be really tough.”

As of Wednesday, with about 250 students on campus, the college had not received any reports of large student gatherings.

“We’re working with students and they know, coming in, that there won’t be the opportunity to gather in the ways that they normally do,” Natalie Basil, dean of students, told the selectboard. “We’re working closely with them to reimagine what social life can look like, and they’re very engaged with that.”

Selectboard Chair Donald Campbell thanked Walker.

 “It’s a good omen that your instincts were to come to us in the very beginning and tell us what your plan was,” he said. “We appreciate that kind of communication.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Southern Vermont. She previously worked as a reporter for the Addison Independent, where she covered politics, business, the arts and environmental issues. She also served as an assistant editor at Vermont Sports magazine and VT Ski + Ride. Emma majored in science journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was editor-in-chief of the Current. She received a first-place award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in Environmental Reporting for a series about agriculture and water quality in Addison County.

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