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State sets mandatory minimums for campus safety this fall

By Glenn Russell. VTDigger. Rachel Haselgard, from left, Grace Tampori, and Mimi Myers, all University of Vermont students, practice social distancing as they work out in Burlington in April 25

By Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Move-in day at Vermont’s college campuses will be a relatively somber event this year, as students sign contracts promising to practice Covid-19 safety measures, enter quarantine if they’ve come from afar, and prep for party-free socializing.

State officials on Tuesday, July 7,  released Covid-19 safety guidelines for college campuses, much as the state has done over the last few months for Vermont’s manufacturing operations, construction companies, restaurants, and other critical segments of the economy.

Except these guidelines are the mandatory minimum that schools must follow.

Teaching students to protect others from Covid-19 infection in the classroom, in the dorms, and everywhere else is a moral responsibility and good preparation for the future,” said Rich Schneider, the former Norwich University president who is the head of the state’s college reopening task force, at Tuesday’s press conference with the governor.

“We’re training the next generation of the workforce,” Schneider said. “This is their normal now. They might as well learn how to do this now in college when they’re learning everything else that they’ve got to do to strengthen the workforce.”

With colleges in Vermont and nationally issuing conflicting news about how and when they will open, many college students are still unsure whether they’ll be starting school at all at the end of the summer. The University of Vermont, the state’s largest institution of higher learning, on July 3 announced that students would be able to choose whether they want to attend classes in person or virtually next fall.

The school at that point outlined rules regarding new dining hall practices, reduced dorm capacity, and a “green and gold promise” that on-campus students must commit to regarding social distancing.

The guidelines, which potentially affect 56,000 students who could return to Vermont campuses this year, draw from practices in other states and from close work with the state Department of Health.

Among other things, the guidelines stipulate that students must wear masks while in classes, and maintain strict social distancing of no less than 6 feet from others in common areas. They can move into their dorms with no more than two people accompanying them, and must adhere to reduced density in classrooms and dining halls. The guidelines also outline the response – including a variety of quarantine scenarios – in the event of an outbreak.

The guidelines ask institutions to consider assigned seating policies to assist in the event of contact tracing, which would be carried out by the Dept. of Health.

In the event of an outbreak, “we can quarantine for example a whole floor of a dormitory,” said Schneider. “We could quarantine a whole dorm.”

In the event of a larger outbreak, “Faculty and staff would probably shift immediately to online instruction,” he said. “There’d be enough essential employees left from a student life perspective to keep order and discipline in the dormitory systems and we’ve got to feed them and we’ve got to keep the place clean. So the janitorial staff would be there.”

Students, faculty and staff will sign a contract promising to abide by a safety contract, and if they violate the contract, they could be expelled or lose their job, Schneider said. Rooms and suites will be limited to just two students, and travel will be restricted.

“Any travel done by faculty staff on university money will require higher authority within the institution to make sure we’re minimizing risk to employees,” Schneider said. “The same is true of students. We’re trying to keep them in Vermont, which is one of the safest states in the union, and we want to keep it that way.”

Students will be tested for Covid-19 when they arrive on campus, and again seven days after they arrive, said Health Commissioner Mark Levine.

“We will have a great idea then of how the college melting pot, if you will, people coming in from various places looks at that point,” he said. Colleges will be required to have clear testing plans. “Some colleges have already elected to have regular testing of their student population, perhaps the greater population, not just the students, over the course of the semester. That could look like every other week, or that can look like twice a week.”

While college officials know that 56,000 students could potentially attend college in Vermont this coming semester, nobody knows how many students actually will.

UVM is also wrestling with an unfair labor practice complaint from the University of Vermont’s faculty union, the union’s first in 19 years. The union charges that administrators have left the union out of the fall planning discussions – conversations that affect working conditions.

“I’m glad they called it ‘minimal safety guidelines,’ and encouraged colleges and universities to be even more cautious than what was outlined in the guidelines,” said Julie Roberts, president of the faculty union, of the guidelines released July 7.  She said some faculty have concerns about teaching in person. “If a faculty member feels they really cannot for any reason safely teach a class in a face-to-face manner, they should be permitted to move online with that class.”

Vermont institutions of higher education were in a perilous situation before Covid-19, the result of changing demographics and other factors. In the last few years, Southern Vermont College, College of St. Joseph, and Green Mountain College have closed, and Marlboro College became part of Emerson College in Boston. Goddard College is on probation because of financial difficulties. The then-chancellor of the Vermont State College system in April recommended closing three campuses, although that plan has been shelved.

Asked if any more colleges could face closure if students don’t return to campuses this fall, Schneider said they could.

“It’s certainly true that many of our institutions are under great financial stress,” he said. But he’s confident the state’s safety measures will help keep outbreaks under control.

“We feel that we’ve got the resources to contain that outcome and to keep everyone going to school,” he said.

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