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UVM Maintains Low Coronavirus Numbers, But Still Faces A Tight Budget

The UVM president, a mascot, a girl holding a giant cotton swab and Burlington's mayor stand for a photo
Liam Elder-Connors
UVM student Emily Scarborough wins a giant swab for taking the 100,000th COVID-19 test Tuesday. The state's largest school has had few coronavirus cases this semester. Officials credit mitigation measures, including weekly testing, and student behavior.

Vermont's largest college has only seen a handful of coronavirus cases so far.

In late August, when Vermont was recording few new cases of COVID-19, the University of Vermont brought about 10,500 students back to Burlington. Despite assurances from UVM officials, there was concern among city residents, students and faculty members that the return would bring a spike in cases.

But that didn’t happen. And UVM could try to use its success to secure badly-needed financial support.

"There are individual universities that are maybe doing one or the other or pieces of it. I think what we've tried to do is, to do it all." — Suresh Garimella, UVM President

On Tuesday, UVM first year Emily Scarborough stopped by the college’s student center to take her weekly COVID-19 test. But on this day, after a routine nasal swab, a handful of TV cameras were waiting for her. Scarborough walked down the hall and through an arch of green and gold balloons.

The made-for-TV event was to highlight a milestone.

“This afternoon we conducted test number 100,000,” said UVM President Suresh Garimella. He paused for a beat, looked out expectantly and then told the small crowd: “That’s the place where everyone claps,” prompting some scattered applause.

Garimella called Scarborough up to the small stage and handed her a small gift bag and a giant cotton swab.

“Don’t try to put that up your nose,” he joked.

UVM hit the 100,000-mark and took a public victory lap after conducting weekly tests of all its students since its fall semester began about two months ago. In that time, the school has only found 27 positive cases.

Garimella said UVM’s success is due to a combination of strategies, including testing.

“We’ve also got supportive isolation, we’ve got quarantining, contact tracing — it’s all part of a mix,” he said. “There are individual universities that maybe are doing one or the other or pieces of it. I think what we’ve tried to do is, to do it all.”

"Everyone is wearing their masks, everyone does seem to be taking it somewhat seriously." — Paige Bissaillion, UVM junior

Not everyone was expecting UVM to have such low rates of COVID-19, including junior Paige Bissaillion. She said in general, it seems like her classmates are taking the pandemic seriously.

“Everyone is wearing their masks, everyone does seem to be taking it somewhat seriously,” Bissaillion said. “Living downtown, you do see people gathering, people not wearing their masks.”

Parties were a major concern for Burlingtonians who lived in neighborhoods near the college. Off-campus gatherings have been a source for outbreaks at other colleges.

Louis Siegel was one resident who raised concerns. The 71 year-old has been in his neighborhood for 20 years and said the students are usually pretty loud — but not this year.

“There have been very few disturbances, if any,” Siegel said. “And the other thing that I’ve noticed is that the respect for mask-wearing among UVM students is quite extensive.”

More From VPR: Despite Community Concerns, UVM Still Bringing Thousands Of Students Back To Burlington

Colleges around the country have been hotspots for outbreaks of COVID-19, with over 214,000 cases at 1,700 schools, according to the New York Times. More than 50 colleges have reported at least 1,000 cases and 375 schools, including the University of New Hampshire and the University of Rhode Island, have reported at least 100.

Colleges in Vermont had avoided major outbreaks until recently. Last week, St. Michael's College in Colchester identified eight cases of the virus. The college quickly switched to remote-only classes and ordered more testing. There are now 37 cases associated with the outbreak. The liberal arts college of about 1,500 will test all students on Saturday.

St. Mike's Vice President of Enrollment and Marketing Kristin McAndrew said some of the infected students did violate campus policies.

“Whether it was having a visitor from outside the community in the residence hall, or having a gathering that was larger than is allowed," she said. "But we can’t yet say this spread is tied to one particular student or one particular action."

More from NPR: Mask-Wearing Is Up In The U.S., But Young People Are Still Too Lax, CDC Survey Finds

All higher education institutions, in order to reopen in Vermont, were required to have students sign pledges that they’d follow public health measures, like wearing masks and not holding large gatherings. Students could face discipline, including expulsion, if they broke the pledges.

At UVM, 1,303 students have been disciplined for violating the health pledge, and 21 have been removed from campus.

UVM Provost and Senior Vice President Patty Prelock said the majority of the violations were students who missed a weekly test.

“Most of them made ‘em up,” she said. “Some of 'em did not realize that they needed to take a test, they didn’t realize they could fill out an exemption form because they weren’t coming here, 'cause they were either doing at-home or remote [classes].”

"Right now UVM has a relatively good story to tell and they're not being shy about it." — Sen. Phil Baruth

UVM’s testing regime is not cheap; the school expects this year to spend up to $12 million on testing alone. Federal and state funding has helped defer some, but not all, the university’s coronavirus mitigation measures.

Those added costs, along with existing budgetary constraints and declining enrollment, have pushed UVM into a tenuous financial position.

Earlier this year, the school adopted cuts but still ended up with a $9.4 million gap. The future looks equally grim with UVM projecting declining enrollment that will cause net tuition to drop by about $23 million for the next fiscal year.

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

But could UVM’s apparent success at containing COVID-19 help the university make the case to state lawmakers for an additional infusion of cash?

Phil Baruth, chair of the Vermont Senate education committee and also a UVM English professor, said he expects Congress will eventually pass another stimulus bill, and when that happens, UVM won’t be the only institution asking for more money.

“Right now, UVM has a relatively good story to tell, and they’re not being shy about it,” Baruth said. “I think they’re hoping for funding, and they’ve got a good set of statistics so far to show they're spending what they already got responsibly.”

While UVM’s COVID numbers are good right now, there’s still about a month of in-person classes to get through. All students will return home before Thanksgiving and complete the rest of the semester, including finals, remotely.

To reduce travel between states, the spring semester won’t start until Feb. 1 and the school won’t have a spring break.

Garimella, the UVM President, says the school will keep its fall testing protocol in place — a plan that includes a test before students get to campus, another once they arrive and then weekly testing until at least March 1.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

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