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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

What Will Fall Semester Look Like On Vermont College Campuses? It's Complicated.

A sign urging social distancing greets visitors to the Davis Center on UVM's campus.
Abagael Giles
VPR File
A sign urging social distancing greets visitors to the Davis Center on UVM's campus. We're talking about how Vermont colleges are preparing for campuses reopening to students in the fall.

Vermont's state government has issued guidelines college campuses will have to follow in order to reopen on campus this fall. They include: mandatory health checks, a compressed academic calendar, and codes of conduct students pledge to follow. We're talking with Vermont colleges about what's happening on their individual campuses, and the concerns many still have for the fall.

Our guests are:

  • Patty Prelock, provost at University of Vermont
  • Isaac Lee, a rising junior at the University of Vermont
  • Nancy Welch, a University of Vermont English professor, member of United Academics faculty union, and author of the recent essay A Semester to Die For
  • Jeff Cason, provost and executive vice president of Middlebury College
  • Maya Gee, a rising junior at Middlebury College from Waikoloa, Hawaii
  • Laurie Essig, director of gender studies at Middlebury College and president of the campus's American Association of University Professors group
  • Tom McHenry, president and dean of Vermont Law School and chair of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges
  • Bernard Bull, president of Goddard College

Broadcast live on Monday, July 13, 2020 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Keep an eye out for more stories from this show, featuring guests and perspectives from various Vermont colleges and universities across the state. For more about Middlebury College's plans to reopen, head here.

The following has been edited and condescend for clarity.

The University of Vermont's Fall Reopening Plan

UVM is planning on welcoming students back to campus this fall, but things will look different when they arrive. About 13,000 students are expected to return to classes, with 6,000 living on campus.

  • Students can opt to return to UVM and be on-campus or choose to stay home and be completely remote, with no change in tuition or comprehensive fees for either option.
  • UVM will be testing students beyond what the state of Vermont requires. All students will be required to participate in twice weekly sampling and free testing for COVID-19 on campus.
  • Students are required to sign a pledge, promising to comply with social distancing, mask-wearing and other COVID-19 risk prevention guidelines. Violations are subject to a fine and an educational sanction.
  • When students leave for Thanksgiving break, they won't return to campus until the New Year, finishing courses and taking their exams remotely.
  • In response to budgetary shortfalls related to the pandemic, UVM announced pay cuts for more than 2,000 non-union employees, leading to protests and backlash form members of the UVM community. Many faculty members will be working the same amount for less pay in the fall.

To read more about UVM’s reopening plans for the fall, head here.

A Conversation with UVM's Provost

Jane Lindholm: UVM is planning to do twice weekly sampling and testing. Does this apply to faculty and staff as well?

Provost Patty Prelock: We haven't made that decision yet. We will be talking with them about the expectations, probably going to their primary care physicians if they feel that they've come in contact with someone with COVID. But we don't have [twice-weekly testing] as an expectation at this point in time.

For students, we're working towards having very strict regulations. We will see if we're able to do the twice weekly [testing], as you mentioned, but our goal is to exceed the expectations so that we can make sure that we create a healthy environment for our students, faculty and staff.

More from NPR: For In-Person College, Coronavirus Testing Will Be Key. But Is That Feasible? 

What would happen if a student does test positive?

Provost Patty Prelock: There is a process through our Student Health Services and we collaborate with the Vermont Department of Health to go through a contact tracing framework, where we identify who the individual was with. The student is quarantined, and there's a whole process that we put in our document, which has been guided by actually the wonderful leadership of our governor, and our Vermont Department of Health.

More from VPR: State Unveils Rules For College Campus Reopenings This Fall 

One of the things that students will have to do is to sign the Green and Gold Promise.  Many students and many community members are concerned that students won't be following the pledge. How are you going to enforce the Green and Gold Promise and how are you going to enforce it for students who are living off campus?

"We will see if we're able to do the twice weekly [testing], as you mentioned, but our goal is to exceed the expectations so that we can make sure that we create a healthy environment for our students, faculty and staff." - Patty Prelock, University of Vermont Provost

Provost Patty Prelock: I think I'm really counting on our students following Our Common Ground, which we've instilled in them from the beginning when they started being a Catamount, and that is respect for others, having integrity, being open to things that are going to look different, being innovative and responsible and making sure that we're being just in our efforts.

So, there's two ways to look at it. We certainly have a code of conduct and we've given students a lot of expectations in terms of signing the pledge and taking the VOSHA training so that they really understand it. But I also, from my discipline background, want to have a positive campaign for students. So our nursing and medical students said they want to be sort of peer ambassadors or create videos to help other students realize this is your role in keeping our community safe. And maybe one of the reasons that you really want to do this is not just to keep people safe, but because you want to stay on campus. And the only way you can stay on campus is if you follow the rules.

More from VPR: Unclear If Returning UVM Students Are Following Public Health Guidance

Before we let you go, UVM Communications Department told us that the school won't let you be on with our next two guests, a student and a faculty member, or have you come on after them. So, we're not going to be able to get an administrative response to their questions and concerns. If not on air, how are you responding to concerns being raised by faculty, staff and students?

Provost Patty Prelock: There’s a great deal of anxiety with so much uncertainty. I think you feel it, Jane. I feel it, my family does. But I think that we're always guided by a philosophy that we gather information and insight, we have a balanced and pragmatic assessment of the issues, and then we chart a course to follow as a community and we do it in a responsible and informed way, according to science and advice from our public health experts.

So, our faculty are fully represented. They're active participants. They work on our UVMStrong Advisory Committee... Our faculty and students and the administration - we all want the same thing: We want a healthy and safe community. And we want a place where we can learn and have a job. And so, I think if we just keep that philosophy, we will serve the university well.

A UVM Student And Professor Share Their Perspectives

Isaac Lee is a rising junior at the University of Vermont and Prof. Nancy Welch is a University of Vermont English professor, member of United Academics faculty union, and author of the recent essay A Semester to Die For

Isaac, what you're thinking? How are you approaching the fall semester?

Isaac Lee: UVM has done a lot — they're going to be testing people twice a week, they have a very clear set of strict rules. But what I've seen is that there is a lack of clarity in how those rules will be enforced. There’s already been reports of up to 40 people partying and when people arrive in the thousands from all different states, I can't help but feel that more partying and even more rule breaking is inevitable. I don't believe that people are going to stick to the Green and Gold promise. I feel that the message of UVM saying that we must stay strong together as a community, communicates the message that we are on our own, and that help is not coming.

More from NPR: The Wild Card For An In-Person Fall: College Student Behavior

So what do you think UVM should do? Are you saying that you think the university should go to all remote learning?

Isaac Lee: Well, no, I don't believe that. Because of these recent mandates, that would not be good for our international students. But what I think people need to realize is that this is a problem not just on a university level, but also a state and city level. On a state level, we have Gov. Scott saying we’re going to wait for numbers to change in order to shift directions. In other words, he’s saying that he’d rather react to an outbreak rather than preventing one from happening in the first place. On the local level, Burlington and South Burlington have mask wearing mandates, but the mandates have not been enforced. And with a clear lack of enforcement at UVM, the burden of keeping us safe has been left to the people. It feels like we're on our own.

More from NPR: ICE Agrees To Rescind Policy Barring Foreign Students From Online Study In The U.S.  

What about you, Professor Welch? Where do you intersect with what Isaac is saying and what we heard from Provost Prelock a few minutes ago?

"...for those who do need to be on campus, they need hazard pay and real PPE. A bottle of sanitizer and a cloth mask isn't going to cut it." - Prof. Nancy Welch, University of Vermont

Prof. Nancy Welch: First, since Provost Prelock made a passing reference to the science, I just want to point out a couple of scientific facts. When the universities shut down last spring, the U.S. was averaging 500 new cases a day. Now because of the rush in recent weeks to reopen, we are seeing more than 60,000 new cases a day in the U.S. Already several state universities have seen massive outbreaks.  The increasing scientific evidence is that when people gather for extended periods of time in enclosed spaces like classrooms and dorm rooms, cloth masks and social distancing are not enough protection.

More from VPR: The College Kids Are Back; Are COVID Cases Up? 

So, my concern as an educator is that the University reopening plans promise to increase infection rates and will result in another shutdown. They’re a threat to both public health and to educational and research continuity. So, with reference to the CDC, I think we should look at their considerations for institutions of higher education that recommend virtual learning as really the only safe option in a surging pandemic. And that would mean making on-campus presence the exception, not the rule.

So, Prof. Welch, are you planning to teach all of your courses remotely one way or another, whether it's live streamed or done sort of on-demand?

Prof. Nancy Welch: My teaching will be done remotely. My concern is that because the administration has not made this the rule, but instead the exception, that we're not going to be able to provide very low-density dorm housing for the students who do need a home for their learning. And we are not going to be able to safeguard the campus for those activities that are essential to happen on campus.

And we need our faculty, staff and service maintenance workers in full force. No position cuts, no furloughs, no one compelled to work on-campus. But for those who do need to be on campus, they need hazard pay and real PPE. A bottle of sanitizer and a cloth mask isn't going to cut it.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

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