As coronavirus cases surge around the country, Castleton University is abandoning its plan to hold in-person classes this fall.
Last month, interim president Jonathan Spiro announced that the college would resume regular courses under an altered schedule. Now, with the start of the semester just several weeks away, the public liberal arts college has decided instead to deliver all classes online. It's the first traditional residential college in Vermont to do so.
The nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases — including record caseloads and deaths in states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona — prompted the move, Spiro said in an announcement on Wednesday.
“Vermonters are doing a great job of containing the virus. However, the public health situation in the rest of the country has dictated that we move nearly all of our courses online for the fall semester," he said.
Other colleges, including the University of Vermont and Middlebury College, still plan to offer substantial face-to-face instruction.
"We are proceeding with our plans to offer both in-person instruction and a stay-at-home option for those students who prefer to stay home for their studies this fall," UVM spokesperson Enrique Corredera said in an email. "We are confident that the comprehensive plan we have in place will enable UVM to offer a high-quality education to our students, and in a way that is responsible and informed by the best science and advice from public health experts."
Castleton will keep its campus, including dorms, open for students who want to live there during the semester. Those who do will still take all of their classes online but can access other on-campus resources.
Associate dean of advancement James Lambert said in an interview that college leaders are worried the pandemic's worsening outlook may lead to another government-imposed lockdown in the fall — and a repeat of last semester's scramble to move courses online.
"Given this decision, we'll be in better shape to weather that than we were in the spring," he said.
Vermont Law School and Goddard College have also said they plan to hold online classes in the fall, but those schools don't face the same financial pressure as colleges that are structured around a full-time campus experience. Castleton has roughly 1,900 full-time students, and it has residence halls for 1,000 of them.
Lambert said Castleton officials don't yet know whether the college will incur a financial hit as a result of Wednesday's announcement. While officials expect that more students will choose to live off campus, Lambert said they hope the online offerings may attract some new students. They aren't planning any layoffs, for now.
Under the earlier, in-person learning plan, fall enrollment numbers "were looking very normal," Lambert said. But students and faculty were divided over the best approach to the upcoming semester. The new plan, Lambert said, lets students decide where to live and provides a safer environment.
"This is the decision that, in the interest of public health, best serves our students," he said.
Gov. Phil Scott issued reopening guidance for colleges on July 7 that mandates testing, quarantine and social distancing measures. At a press conference announcing the rules, former Norwich University president Richard Schneider, who chaired a task force that developed the guidelines, said the goal was to "make the state the safest place to go to college."
Vermont Tech on Wednesday said it would require most students to live away from its Williston and Randolph Center campuses for most of the fall semester. Lectures will be delivered online, but students will hold in-person labs for "periodic weeks throughout the semester."
The college also detailed health screening, testing and masking requirements for on-campus visits.
Northern Vermont University is still planning for face-to-face instruction in the fall, according to its website. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Vermont State Colleges System Chancellor Sophie Zdatny was unavailable for an interview Wednesday afternoon.