College will reopen this fall, cautiously
This story, which was first published online on Monday, June 22, was updated on Thursday, June 25.
MIDDLEBURY — Encouraged by modeling reports projecting low levels of COVID-19 in Vermont this autumn, Middlebury College officials say that they will reopen the campus to residential students for the fall 2020 semester.
“While this fall will look much different than at any time in our history, I am grateful that we will be able to come together again in a way that upholds educational opportunity while maximizing the health and safety of the entire Middlebury community,” wrote President Laurie Patton in a message to the college community on Monday.
The college has released a detailed reopening plan, which officials caution is subject to change as the public health situation develops and new information and guidance emerge.
The college is planning for a 12-week semester with classes beginning Sept. 8 and ending Nov. 20, with no October break. After Thanksgiving, students will complete one week of remote instruction, followed by remote final exams.
“Our goal for the fall semester is to support in-person learning as much as possible while allowing the flexibility to pivot to remote learning if we need to,” Patton wrote.
The Independent requested information regarding the maximum number of students the college was planning to host, as well as the approximate number of employees who were expected to be working on campus this fall, but college officials did not reply in time for this story.
According to the current plan, students will arrive on campus in three waves — on Aug. 18, 26 and 28.
They will be asked to self-quarantine at home for 14 days before coming to school and will be allowed on campus only if they do not have any symptoms of COVID-19. Students who are unable to quarantine at home will be required to do so in their dorm room on campus.
Each student will be allowed to bring one person with them when they arrive with their belongings, but that person will not be allowed inside the dorms.
The college plans to conduct COVID-19 testing twice for incoming students — once upon their arrival and again after they’ve been on campus for seven days.
For at least the first week, while students wait for the results from both tests, they will be required to quarantine in their dorm rooms, where their meals will be delivered. Students in off-campus housing will be asked to stay in their houses. The quarantine will be lifted only after the test results have come back for the entire student population.
Students who test positive will be immediately isolated on campus and the college will conduct contact tracing.
Because of the low incidence of coronavirus in Vermont at this time, faculty and staff will not be required to have a test before returning to campus, but they will have to complete online COVID-19 training before being allowed to work onsite.
“While current (Centers for Disease Control, Vermont Department of Health and American College Health Association) guidance do not specifically recommend routine periodic testing of asymptomatic individuals, college health officials are exploring that option,” Patton wrote in Monday’s announcement.
The college will update its testing and other protocols later this summer, when Gov. Phil Scott announces reopening guidelines for Vermont colleges and universities.
Middlebury is still developing a plan to determine which staff members, many of whom are currently working remotely, will return to work on campus.
Public Safety, Health Services, Dining Services and Facilities Services and other staff who interact regularly with students will receive training, and employees such as health care workers who perform high-risk tasks will receive personal protective equipment and additional training.
The college will provide safety kits with cloth coverings and hand sanitizer to all students and employees, and hand sanitizer will be available in every building on campus.
Students and employees will be required to sign a “health pledge,” wear cloth face coverings while on campus and self-screen for COVID-19 every day — and report the results in a digital survey, which the college will use to conduct rapid contact tracing in the event that someone on campus tests positive for the disease.
A student who tests positive during the semester will be isolated in dedicated housing near the campus health center. Any employee who tests positive will be required to follow state health guidelines.
Off-campus travel will be very limited at first, and will be monitored by the college.
“We are working closely with civic leaders in the town of Middlebury and Porter Hospital officials to make sure that health and safety guidelines are understood, followed, and enforced for all students, staff, and faculty who travel between campus and businesses in town and the surrounding areas,” Patton wrote.
College faculty will be able to teach remotely if they wish and will receive intensive training this summer. About a third of faculty have so far indicated that they will choose that option, Patton said, but that number could change.
Students taking remote classes will do so from their dorm rooms. Students taking in-person classes will be organized according to state guidelines on physical distancing and social gathering limits.
Guidance for Vermont’s institutions of higher learning will not be released for a few more weeks, but Gov. Scott recently announced that, beginning June 26, restaurants and meeting places could increase their capacities to 50% occupancy, with a maximum of 75 inside and 150 outside, as long as health guidance on wearing masks and social distancing were observed. It’s unlikely that many college classrooms can safely reach 50% occupancy, however, given their smaller size and the need to keep at least six feet between students.
Middlebury has structured dining services and campus housing to maximize social distancing, and students’ key cards will open only the buildings they need access to.
Parties, it appears from the guidance released Monday, will be permitted.
“All gatherings will need to comply with Vermont’s group size, space, and physical distancing guidelines in place at the time,” Middlebury officials wrote in an FAQ posted on the college website. “Any such gatherings must be scheduled in spaces large enough to allow adequate physical distancing. The Office of Event Management is updating its space reservation process to account for these group size and space requirements. In addition to formally scheduled events, these requirements apply to all informal student gatherings, including parties, whether registered or impromptu. Group size and space rules must be followed in all cases without exception to maintain adequate physical distancing.”
The college’s announcement generated immediate, and sometimes strong, reactions online, especially on Twitter.
“I’m really happy that Middlebury will be back in-person in the fall!” wrote Assistant Professor of Political Science Gary Winslett. “I’m also glad that the faculty have the ability to choose whether to be in-person or teach remotely. My classes will be in-person.”
Associate Professor of Political Science Kemi Fuentes-George did not seem persuaded by one of the college health protocols:
“‘Beginning two weeks prior to their assigned arrival day, students must complete a 14-day quarantine at home.’ LOLOLOL.”
Some students expressed amusement at the idea that their classmates who last spring vandalized the campus would adhere to a health pledge.
Senior Benjy Renton urged patience.
“There are questions to which we currently know the answers,” Renton wrote in a Tweet Monday night. “There are questions to which we currently do not. It’s important to remember that the situation remains incredibly fluid and modeling and plans will change. Visceral reactions are natural, but take time to process.”
The Independent asked several members of the college community to share their thoughts about the college’s reopening plans. Read the story here.
Editor’s note: Christopher Ross is married to an employee of the college.