Despite Mayor's Concerns, UVM Stands By Its Reopening Plan | Off Message

Despite Mayor's Concerns, UVM Stands By Its Reopening Plan


UVM president Suresh Garimella - FILE: MOLLY WALSH ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Molly Walsh ©️ Seven Days
  • UVM president Suresh Garimella
The University of Vermont appears poised to resume fall classes later this month despite mounting objections from city officials, faculty and neighboring residents.

On Monday, university president Suresh Garimella reiterated his confidence in UVM's current approach in a written response to a slate of concerns raised last week by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger.

"I am proud to say that it not only meets the Governor’s standards, it exceeds many of them, and is one of the most stringent plans of any university in the nation," Garimella wrote.

The mayor generally supports the effort to reopen campus but sought changes around the frequency and disclosure of student COVID-19 tests, quarantining procedures and how the university plans to police student behavior.
Garimella's response did not signal any forthcoming changes. Instead, he detailed UVM's success so far in preventing transmission of the new coronavirus among students who arrived in Burlington earlier this summer. Only about 1 percent of the 1,319 students tested between March and July have tested positive, "and all recovered with no spread," Garimella noted.

It was not clear if those figures included two positive tests that recently disrupted training for the UVM men's basketball team just days after practices began.
The university is touting its fall COVID-19 testing program as the key to quickly catching and suppressing new cases. UVM will test all students before, upon and seven days following their arrival to Burlington, then weekly through mid-September. In an op-ed published Monday on the Inside Higher Ed website, Garimella described the testing strategy as essential to reopening college campuses and cast UVM as a national leader.

Much of the anxiety surrounding UVM's plan stems from the thousands of students who pack into rental units near campus, over whom the college has less control. Hundreds of residents have circulated petitions calling for neighborhood patrols and harsh crackdowns on students caught partying or disregarding public health guidance off campus. Neighbors and many faculty members doubt that students will abide by the conduct pledge, dubbed the Green and Gold Promise, that they are required to sign.

UVM has created an online form where neighbors can report bad behavior, and officials have vowed to treat rule breakers harshly. The university's website states that sanctions may include $250 fines or academic suspension.

So far, UVM officials have sent 25 letters to tenants and landlords where problems have been reported, Garimella wrote to Weinberger. Only two addresses have had repeat issues so far, the university president said.

Garimella's letter did not immediately assuage concerns among Burlington City Council members, who levied pointed criticisms at university officials during Monday night's council meeting. Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) pressed campus representatives for information about Greek life and called for UVM to release data about new coronavirus cases every day.

Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8) said she is "extremely disturbed" by the decision to invite students back to campus. She criticized Garimella for not personally appearing before councilors on Monday.

"What I don't understand is how the leader of one of the largest employers in the state, at an institution that brings thousands upon thousands of out-of-state students into the state, is not here tonight," she said.

Though local scrutiny remains high, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine has endorsed the university's approach.

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