Colleges ‘holding their breath’ in semester’s final weeks as Covid cases surge

Tents set up to allow for socially distanced gatherings on the campus of Middlebury College. Photo by James Finn/VTDigger

As Covid-19 cases surge around the state, Vermont college officials are holding their breath during the final weeks of a semester that to this point has yielded relatively few cases on their campuses.

Colleges in the Green Mountain State recorded 140 cases of Covid-19 as of Nov. 10, according to Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation. Their low case numbers set Vermont colleges apart from higher education reopenings nationally, as some campuses around the country have logged thousands of cases this fall.

But as Vermont broke Covid-19 records this week, including new cases at campuses, colleges are acting to prevent last-minute outbreaks as they prepare to send students home for Thanksgiving next week.

“I think everyone’s just kind of holding their breath between here and Thanksgiving,” Richard Schneider, former Norwich University president and head of the state’s college reopenings task force, told VTDigger. “We’re trying to keep students healthy and behaving, and we know people are fatigued.”

At Middlebury College, administrators announced Thursday evening that the campus would enter a “campus quarantine” beginning Friday that will last until students leave for the semester on Nov. 21. 

Under the quarantine, students are required to stay on campus at all times and can no longer venture into the rest of Addison County, which they had previously been allowed to do under Middlebury’s phased reopening plan. 

“Simply put, while we currently have no known cases of Covid-19 on campus, it is now imperative that we take [these] steps to ensure the safest possible departure for students and to protect the entire community,” said Mark Peluso, Middlebury’s head physician.

Middlebury also announced it would provide testing for all students next week before they leave for the semester — a step some other schools are taking, including UVM, Norwich University, Northern Vermont University and St. Michael’s College. The decision whether to test all students before they leave is up to individual schools, Schneider said.

Among the schools that are offering departure tests, though, those tests are not always mandatory. 

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UVM students are “strongly encouraged” to receive a test up to 48 hours before leaving campus, according to an announcement by Annie Stevens, the vice president for student affairs, and at Middlebury, departure tests will be “offered” but are not required.

Like Middlebury, UVM enacted new student behavior rules after the university had a spate of new cases over the past few weeks.

The school moved 30 students into quarantine after one student tested positive over Halloween weekend, and recorded six more cases — which the university said were unrelated to the first one — in the following week, according to UVM’s Covid-19 dashboard

In response, UVM suspended its guest policy, which had allowed students to bring visitors into dorm rooms, and urged anyone who had joined a social gathering to get tested. 

“The university is keenly aware of the rising number of new coronavirus infections in Vermont communities and surrounding states,” said Enrique Corredera, UVM’s public affairs director. “As the incidence of the virus increases in our communities, so does the risk of infection.”

From community to campus

While colleges have largely been able to keep student populations healthy while on-campus, Schneider said a particular risk as cases surge statewide remains students contracting the virus in towns or areas surrounding their campus and bringing it back to school with them. 

That was the case at Norwich University, where two recent Covid-19 cases came from commuter students who caught the virus away from campus, according to Kathy Moriarty, vice president of marketing and communications. 

Norwich, like Middlebury, took the step on Nov. 9 of restricting students to campus-only movement. Washington County, where the university’s Northfield campus is located, has had a surge in new cases as Vermont broke case records in recent days.

In response to Gov. Phil Scott’s executive order Friday, which prohibited non-household gatherings for all Vermonters, schools including UVM, Norwich and Middlebury announced more restrictions, limiting the settings in which students can gather for academic classes and dining.

Schneider, the task force director, said helpful lessons have emerged in recent days from the outbreak at St. Michael’s — so far the largest outbreak at a Vermont college this fall — that state officials connected to the Montpelier hockey league outbreak. Chief among those was the insight that, psychologically, students who had to be isolated benefit from being moved into buildings set up for quarantine rather than remaining in their own rooms, he said. 

Schneider said the St. Michael’s outbreak serves as a cautionary tale of how the virus can be brought from a surrounding community onto a college campus. 

“This virus spread to campus through an individual who was most likely asymptomatic and unaware of their status at the time of transmission,” said Allesandro Bertoni, St. Michael’s director of communications. “For a primarily residential campus like ours, even with the best efforts, this virus can spread quickly with just a few people not following guidelines.”

While the school’s total case count sits at 77, Bertoni told VTDigger that the number of positive cases in isolation was down to eight as of Nov. 13, with 10 students in quarantine.

As of Nov 1, colleges statewide had disciplined 1,942 students for breaking Covid-19 related guidelines, including 92 students sent home from campuses, according to Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

When students come back

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Looking ahead, Schneider said the biggest risk colleges face is the winter. Health experts’ expectation that cases will continue to surge then — and the reality that students will be left to their own devices before they come back to school in February — remain concerns, Schneider said. 

“What we’re worried about is how healthy students will be when they come back, and keeping them healthy until they leave,” Schneider said.

Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner of the Department of Health, said she hopes that students take to heart the reality that Vermont’s heightened community transmission in recent days poses just as much of a risk to college students as anyone else. 

College students “are affected by rising case numbers in the same way that all Vermonters are affected, in that there is greater risk of infection overall as we see community transmission rise,” Dolan said.

“I hope [students] understand that what you do now can affect your family at home, as you could possibly take infection home. Apply these lessons not just on campus, but as you visit your family over the holidays,” Dolan said.

Recent promising Covid-19 vaccine trial results bode well for higher education down the line, Schneider said, though he speculated that Vermont college students and staffers would not be among the first to get the drug.

The task force will continue to monitor case rates in Vermont, and nationally, as it builds on its plans for students to return in February, Schneider said.

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James Finn

About James

James is a senior at Middlebury College majoring in history and Spanish. He is currently editor at large at the Middlebury Campus, having previously served as managing editor, news editor and in several other roles there. James was a reporter this summer at the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and earlier was an intern at the Addison County Independent.

Email: [email protected]

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