Vermont will require all college students returning to campuses this fall to comply with a strict regimen of testing, quarantining and social distancing to try to prevent the kind of COVID-19 outbreaks sweeping the nation.
The announcement of the protocols Tuesday was intended to quell local fears about an influx of students from places with higher infection rates and convince anxious students that in-person education in the state was a low-risk proposition.
“The State of Vermont aims to make the state the safest place to go to college,” said Richard Schneider, the recently retired president of Norwich University. “All of our college presidents have that in mind and have that as their target.”
Schneider chaired the state higher education task force that drafted the new mandatory guidelines announced Tuesday. Schools are free to enact even tougher rules.
Gov. Phil Scott said he was confident that the new rules were strict enough and the state’s track record in managing the pandemic strong enough to allow Vermont to welcome thousands of students back to school.
“These schools have stepped up and proposed strict procedures and mitigation strategies, from quarantining and testing to facial coverings, limited gathering sizes, staggered dining times, and much more,” Scott said.
Scott said that if the restrictions prove insufficient, he stands ready to change course. Schneider made it clear, though, that the goal was for the restrictions to make that unnecessary.
“None of us want to send our students back home again as we did in March,” Schneider said.
The measures outlined Tuesday are meant to prevent infected students from coming to Vermont in the first place, keep students healthy once in the state, and allow schools to clamp down quickly should outbreaks occur.
Students will be required to sign “health safety contracts” in which they pledge to follow the rules or face discipline, including potential expulsion.
“There are ramifications if they threaten other people by not following those contracts,” Schneider said, noting that expulsion would be "an expensive lesson" for a student's family.
Students aren't the only ones who'll be covered by new rules. Out-of-state travel by staff and faculty will be curtailed and, just like students, they will have to wear masks in the presence of others.
Schneider said schools would have to take a hard line and quickly discipline students and faculty who refuse to follow rules, such as if faculty claim they have the right to refuse to wear masks.
“Well, then it’s not your right to work at my school, because you threaten the entire population by not doing that,” said Schneider, who was the longest-serving president of the Northfield military school before retiring this year.
One of the starkest measures schools are expected to take to keep campuses safe will be to adjourn after Thanksgiving and not return until the following year, possibly late enough to eliminate any traditional spring break.
While that’s not a requirement, merely a recommended “best practice,” Schneider said most school presidents agree that a traditional academic schedule would be unmanageable.
“We don’t want them traveling for a week and then coming back, and then we’re starting all over again with everybody being quarantined again,” he said.
Out-of-state travel by faculty will also be restricted. Visitors will be limited, including speakers for on-campus events.
Before coming to campus this fall, students will have to quarantine in one of several ways. If they’re driving to Vermont with limited stops, they can quarantine at home before traveling.
Those coming by public transportation, such as bus or plane, will have to quarantine after arrival. Like tourists, students coming from counties in the 13 states closest to Vermont that are deemed low risk will not have to quarantine.
Students will also have to undergo a health screening within 48 hours of arrival on campus, including a COVID-19 test for those from high-risk counties and those traveling by transit. All students, including Vermonters, will need a test within a week of arrival.
Residence halls will be limited to two students per dorm room.
If outbreaks occur, schools will be able to quickly quarantine a floor, dormitory or entire campus if necessary, Schneider said.
Students living off-campus will be bound by the same health contract, but it's less clear how behavior would be policed. Schneider predicted little difficulty in educating students about the new expectations and holding them accountable “at least when they are in our presence.”
"In each others’ presence, they have to hold each other accountable,” he said. “It has to be not cool to be doing bad things that could risk each others’ lives.”