Middlebury College is sending students home early for spring break and will halt regular classes "until further notice" in an attempt to prevent a coronavirus outbreak on campus.
College president Laurie Patton announced Tuesday morning that students will begin spring break on Friday, March 13, a week earlier than planned. Classes will resume on March 30 but will be taught remotely.
Middlebury is also canceling all sporting events, home and away, and is limiting social gatherings this week to no more than 120 people. The college is also banning all college-sponsored travel, including faculty conferences, and will not allow visitors on campus.
A patient who lives in Bennington County is Vermont's one confirmed case of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Middlebury officials took this into consideration — plus the growing number of cases in nearby New York and New Hampshire — when deciding to take action, according to Patton.
A visitor who attended a campus sporting event was recently diagnosed with COVID-19, though the Vermont Department of Health has confirmed "that the person was not a risk" during their visit, Patton said.
"Public health authorities advise that practicing 'social distancing' is the best way to slow the spread of infection," she wrote. "We therefore looked for opportunities to eliminate, as much as possible, the need for students, faculty, and staff to congregate."
Students who must remain on campus during spring break and the rest of the semester can apply to do so, according to Patton.
"Your courses, too, will be delivered remotely," she wrote in her message.
The college is also considering closing 14 of its international schools; Middlebury had already suspended programs in China and Italy, the two worst-hit countries. Staff are monitoring "the rapidly changing situation on the ground in each of our sites," Patton said.
Other colleges in the state are watching the situation closely. Champlain College and the University of Vermont are on spring break this week but alerted students to stay abreast of advisories.
"We have not made a decision to close campus or move coursework entirely on-line at this time, however, we are evaluating the situation on a daily basis and do have contingency plans in place should those steps be necessary," Champlain director of media relations Leandre Waldo wrote in an email to Seven Days.
UVM provost Patricia Prelock alerted faculty on March 3 to tell students preparing to leave campus for this week's recess to bring course materials home with them. "Depending on how the situation unfolds, it may be necessary to provide instruction remotely for some portion of the Spring 2020 semester," Prelock wrote in an email.
While there was no current plan to shift to online courses or alter UVM's schedule, "the situation may change quickly," Prelock wrote.
At the Vermont State Colleges, classes were in session as usual Tuesday, and there were no plans to change that. Administrators said they were watching the situation.
Before campus closes, Middlebury College staff will be instructing students on proper hand-washing techniques this week and will distribute sanitizing kits for cellphones and keys. The college will also adjust campus dining services to "decrease the number of students congregating at any one time."
"This is a lot to take in. We are aware that the impact on everyone — students, faculty, and staff — will be great," Patton wrote. "We are taking these actions now, as disruptive as they might be, to lessen the risk of facing greater challenges and consequences in the future. We are confident that this is the best course forward in support of you and our academic mission."
In Vermont, fears of a coronavirus outbreak has closed schools, changed how court hearings are conducted and postponed conferences. The state is currently monitoring 226 patients for signs of the infection, which include fever, dry cough and shortness of breath.
Worldwide, more than 109,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus, and 3,800 have died.