After nearly two months off, colleges across Vermont are preparing to resume in-person classes — some as early as Feb. 1. Coronavirus numbers have soared around the country during the break, but state and college leaders say the protocols that worked in the fall, with some tweaks, will work again.
Vermont mostly avoided major outbreaks of COVID-19 on its college campuses in the fall. There were 238 cases total, and the positivity rate among college students was just 0.11%. Officials say stringent quarantine and testing protocols, required mask-wearing and other public health guidelines kept numbers under control.
For weeks this fall, St. Michael’s College in Colchester only recorded one case of COVID-19. But that changed in late October when the liberal arts college of about 1,500 found a cluster of six cases. That number count quickly grew.
“It was nerve wracking,” said Liz Hogan, a senior at St. Mike’s. “It was kind of like, who are you around? Like, was I in class with any of these people? … So that was kind of a little crazy.”
Hogan was not one of the 78 students who ultimately tested positive for COVID-19, and she says she was never a close contact of anyone either.
St. Mike’s switched to fully remote learning shortly after the outbreak began. That means when in-person classes resume on Feb. 11, it’ll be the first time since October that students have been in an actual classroom.
Daniel Fortier, also a senior at St. Mike’s, said he’s looking forward to going back, but he’s also got some concerns.
“I'm definitely nervous about if numbers start to rise again on campus, especially where numbers are rising all over the country,” he said. “It seems almost inevitable that we'll have cases when we get back with everyone coming from various places.”
When students began the fall semester, Vermont was averaging fewer than 10 new cases of COVID-19 a day. Now as the spring semester starts, the daily average is around 100, and the state has added more than 8,000 cases since November.
Mary Masson, director of the wellness center at St. Mike’s, said given the high prevalence of the virus in Vermont and around the country, they’re expecting some cases among returning students. And they think they’re ready for it.
Masson said students must quarantine on campus or at home and get tested.
“So we'll have a good pulse of what is coming back onto campus,” Masson said. “And if we see virus we'll manage it. We have the ability to house students separately if they need to quarantine or isolate.”
But before in-person classes begin, one college is already experiencing an outbreak. As of Thursday afternoon, Norwich University in Northfield had reported 83 cases among the 1,579 students on-campus.
“We’ve had some significant, egregious and frankly embarrassing incidents of student misconduct that have resulted in the spread of virus on campus and our inability to contain it,” he said.
Norwich still plans to eventually offer in-person classes. The outbreak, while caused in part by student behavior, also illustrates one of the trickiest parts of reopening. Before this week, the college had already identified around 30 cases among returning students.
Middlebury College senior Benjy Renton has tracked college reopening plans all over the country, and the hardest part, he said, will likely be those first two weeks of students being back on campus.
“Because you’re bringing a lot of people in from other areas that may have higher infection rates, and you sort of want to equalize them with the community," Renton said.
That’s why Vermont guidelines require schools to test all students after they've been on campus for seven days — a new requirement this semester.
But after that, each college has its own COVID-19 surveillance strategy. Some, like St. Michael’s and the University of Vermont, are testing students weekly.
Northern Vermont University will pick a random selection of students at their Lyndon and Johnson campuses, says Jonathan Davis, the dean of students at NVU.
“We will rotate through the entire enrollment of campus-based students and employees through the semester,” Davis said. “But again the participation of everyone for all of our testing has been wonderful — we haven’t needed to beg them to test.”
The state also asked colleges to cancel spring break this semester to cut down on potential travel. Most colleges have opted instead to have several break days through semester. Students are also required to abide by the governor’s ban on multi-household gatherings, and institutions were instructed to develop and post their own definition for what constitutes a “household.”
Also new this coming semester: college sports teams are also allowed to play across state lines if they follow stricter guidelines that include testing athletes three times a week. But several schools have already had to delay games and stop practices due to cases of COVID-19.
The men’s basketball team at Castleton University announced Monday it would pause its season. The news came two days after the team played against UMass Dartmouth in Massachusetts — Castleton's first game in almost a year
During a press conference on Monday, coach Alisa Kresge said the players made the decision.
“It was the unknowns — unknowns of can we stay healthy, what would mean for their future if they individually got sick, what does it mean do we have games, do we not have games,” Kresge said. “It was just the culmination of the unknown, just took its toll for our players.”
That unknown extends beyond college athletics to the broader student population, where some are weighing whether it even makes sense to return to campus.
“It’s not the most enjoyable time to be in college,” said Dimitri Tytla, a sophomore from New Jersey at Sterling College in Craftsbury.
Tytla, who transferred this fall from NVU-Johnson to Sterling, said the college divided students into small “learning pods,” and then broke the semester into two five-week periods. During each intensive, students took two classes, four days a week.
It was tough, said Tytla, and he’s considering taking a semester off.
“It’s kind of like, what else would I do? But then it’s also like, I’m not just here to get grades, I’m here to learn,” he said. “Obviously I learned a lot in my first semester at Sterling, but I feel like I could have retained more of the information if it wasn’t a five-week intensive. But it’s the best thing that we can do.”
St. Michael’s senior Liz Hogan wanted to come back, in part because it was her last semester.
“This was kind of a rough senior year,” Hogan said. “But I'm excited that we did get going on campus, because some of my friends who go to bigger schools have not been able to go to school, like, at all this year.”
Hogan says graduation will probably be virtual, but she’s hoping that a piece of it might be in-person.
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