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'Very Tense On Campus': College Students Stuck Between COVID Restrictions, Waiting For Vaccine

Sign warning visitors not to enter at St. Michaels College
Henry Epp
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VPR File
With most college students still ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in Vermont, they continue to live under strict COVID regulations that restrict socializing.

The Scott administration has prioritized older Vermonters in the vaccine rollout over the past several months, taking an approach to inoculate those who are most likely to die from COVID-19. But cases are still rising, most notably among people in their 20s. In the meantime, college students are living under strict COVID-19 regulations, restricting their ability to socialize.

Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at Dartmouth College who’s researching COVID-19 and rural health equity in northern New England, argues the state's vaccine priorities need to change.

“My hope would be that we would target students on college campuses, as well as our high school population,” she said.

More from Vermont Edition: How Regional, Social And Financial Inequities Contribute To Uneven COVID-19 Impacts

But the Scott administration is sticking with its age banding system, meaning that aside from residents who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, and those with high risk health conditions or occupations, Vermonters between 16 and 29 can't sign up for a shot until next week. As for nonresident college students, the state expects to open vaccination appointments at the end of the month, depending on vaccine supply.

What does it feel like right now for college students who are seeing rising cases while living in congregate settings like dorms and apartments — and being asked to stay vigilant with COVID precautions — while still waiting for their turn for vaccines?

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with St. Michael's College Defender executive editor Ashley DeLeon and UVM's The Vermont Cynic reporter Nicole Hardy. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A woman standing for a portrait
Credit Courtesy
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Ashley DeLeon is the executive editor of the St. Michael's publication The Defender.

Henry Epp: So, Ashley and Nicole, you've been reporting on the enforcement of campus COVID-19 protocols and how that's been impacting students. Obviously, you can't speak for every student, but what's the feeling like on each of your campuses right now in terms of how students are responding to COVID restrictions?

Ashley DeLeon: Students are very frustrated, and there are a lot of tensions between public safety and students. Public safety is really enforcing the regulations, and students feel as if they can't breathe. There are a lot of COVID violations, around 30 to 40 COVID violations a week. And one violation can include 10 to 15 people. So that is a lot of sanctions per week. And this is actually the reason why the college hasn't lifted any of the restrictions. It's very, very tense on campus right now.

OK, so that’s St. Mike's. Nicole, what about UVM?

Nicole Hardy: Yeah, I would say UVM has a similar situation. I mean, I think overwhelmingly there's a lot of animosity from students toward administration due to the new sanctions they've put in place, which stops students from going in each other's dorms and really limits their ability to socialize, but has, you know, huge punishments like suspensions. And this animosity has really caused them to resent these sanctions, and maybe even like socialize more than they were first semester. There's a lot of struggle to maintain a normal social life, but also go along with these new COVID rules.

Yeah, and in both cases, I mean, have things changed substantially since last semester? I mean, we heard a lot in the fall about relatively low COVID cases at both of your campuses, although I recall there was one outbreak at St. Mike's. Does the feeling among students feel different in terms of wanting to adhere to the restrictions that the colleges want them to?

Ashley DeLeon: I'd say at the beginning of the spring semester, definitely. You know, St. Mike's was on the news both locally and nationally because of the outbreak. And that all happened because people were not following the restrictions. So when we came back for the spring, everyone was basically like, “All right, we don't want to get sent home again. That really sucked. We need to follow the guidelines.”

But that only spanned so far, because people are sick and tired of the guidelines. There are multiple parties per weekend, and like I mentioned before, many COVID violations. And even though people are wearing masks and they're social distancing, there are some restrictions that people just really don't want to follow, especially ever since the Vermont Department of Health allowed for multi-household gatherings, the college did not adopt that policy. And so that is a large reason why there is so much tension on campus, because everyone feels like we're in a time warp, so to say.

Nicole Hardy: I would say that since first semester, I think students have just generally gotten a little more desensitized to COVID being a pandemic. You can really see a product of this in things like the parties in North Beach, and these off-campus parties that are going on. And that's why we've really maintained a really high number of cases this semester at UVM.

Well, I want to talk a little bit more about those parties at North Beach in Burlington. I want to play another clip from Anne Sosin, the Dartmouth researcher, who reacted to those reports from those crowds of young people at Burlington's beaches last weekend:

I don't share the sense of moral indignation and concern that so many have in looking at the photos of young people on the beach. I think that represents a real opportunity for us to support them in socializing and recreating much more safely right now. We should do everything we can to encourage them to get outside.

Do students feel like your colleges and the state are providing opportunities for students to socialize in a safe way?

Nicole Hardy: Students are very frustrated right now with the social situation. And that's why you see parties at North Beach happening that aren't safe at all, because UVM is not providing social situations where students can feel comfortable. They've also created these sanctions that stop students from actually being safe and socializing in closed-off spaces with people they’re around all the time. So at UVM, you can't go in each other's rooms at all. Otherwise you will — you might get suspended.

A woman
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Nicole Hardy is a news reporter for the University of Vermont publication The Vermont Cynic.

How have students responded to the state's vaccination strategy so far?

Ashley DeLeon: For the past few months, it was kind of assumed that we would all get vaccinated right here, right before we were sent home. But then Gov. Scott released a statement that, “Hey, colleges aren't going to be administering vaccines, unfortunately.” So there's been a lot of frustration, but people have been traveling back home to get their vaccines.

Some students going out of state to get a vaccine in another state where they're where they're from?

Ashley DeLeon: Yes, most definitely. And there are a few of us who will be in Vermont this summer, and those of us who identify as BIPOC, like myself, either already got the vaccine or will be vaccinated. So there are a growing number of people here on campus getting vaccinated. But the expectation was that we would all have the vaccine together as a community, and that's just not the case.

Nicole Hardy: Students are obviously really eager to get vaccinated. But when Vermont is only offering vaccines to Vermont residents, and a significant portion of the school is made up of out-of-state students, that can be a really hard thing for people to navigate.

And along with this, I'm someone that has been vaccinated — I got vaccinated in December — and I haven't gotten anything from the school with regards to them tracking vaccines. So it's kind of strange, like you'd think the school would want to know who's been vaccinated, and they haven't reached out to anyone about it.

On a sort of personal note, you've both now had substantial parts of your college careers happen during this pandemic. For each of you, Ashley and Nicole, do you feel like you've missed out on things that you expected from your college experience so far?

Ashley DeLeon: Personally, no. The pandemic sucks, but you really have to find those little glimmers of hope and say, “Wow, you know, we're in a bad situation, but there are great things happening.” You know, being able to lead the student newspaper. These are opportunities that have happened at such a tumultuous time. But they're great things.

Nicole Hardy: I would say it's really hard to see past what I'm living right now. Especially being a freshman, I don't really know what that college experience is like outside of what I have lived. So I just have kind of grown to appreciate, you know, what I'm doing right now. Especially with reporting, I think that's something I'm really, really thankful for, because I've just never reported before, and it's been an amazing experience.

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