Vermont Colleges Laid Testing Plans to Restart Safely. Will They Work? | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Colleges Laid Testing Plans to Restart Safely. Will They Work?

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SEAN METCALF
  • Sean Metcalf

Every day, another campus cracks.

As U.S. colleges and universities barrel toward the most unpredictable semester in generations, hundreds have abandoned their hopes of bringing students back to campus during the pandemic. The University of Delaware, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania have all canceled most in-person classes. The wave of retreat reached western Massachusetts earlier this month, as Smith College, Mount Holyoke College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst switched to mostly remote learning.

But to the north, the University of Vermont and nearly every other residential college in the Green Mountain State are forging ahead. Thousands of students will return to the state's college communities this month, the majority of whom will travel from outside Vermont, to attend some face-to-face classes and live in dorms.

State and university decision makers argue that Vermont, with its lowest-in-the-nation infection rate, is uniquely positioned to pull off a successful reopening. They've cast the state as the country's "safest place to go to college," as the official state reopening guidelines put it. "If a safe return can be done anywhere, it can be done here," UVM president Suresh Garimella said on Tuesday.

Find out what kind of testing each Vermont college is planning this fall.

As a result, Vermont colleges are launching a semester-long experiment of whether mass testing, campus modifications and student conduct pledges can prevent an uncontrolled outbreak.

Figuring out how to manage the obvious public health risks has become an expensive, all-consuming undertaking. "This is the most complicated problem I've seen in 50 years in higher ed," said former Norwich University president Richard W. Schneider, who headed the governor's task force that wrote the reopening rules.

COVID-19 could not have come at a worse moment for Vermont's colleges, which were already competing for a shrinking pool of high school students. In the last two years, four private schools — Marlboro College, Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College and the College of St. Joseph— have collapsed under extreme financial pressure. In the spring, administrators briefly entertained closing three Vermont State Colleges System campuses.

If they want to survive, already-cash-strapped schools have little choice but to attempt a high-wire act to keep tuition dollars flowing and coronavirus cases in check. So they are working in overdrive to reinvent life on campus. Schools have ordered miles of plexiglass and seas of hand sanitizer. They've enacted elaborate rules to track where students sit at meals and to penalize those caught without a mask.

Some have promised COVID-19 testing schemes at a scale far beyond anything yet undertaken in Vermont, and they've set aside entire buildings to isolate students who may have been exposed to the virus.

Each back-to-campus plan represents an educated guess as to what precautions are needed, tempered by what is feasible. There's no guarantee any of them will work.

"I'm afraid that a lot of these decisions were based on, 'If we don't bring our students back to campus, we're going to close,'" said Beth Walsh, director of career development at Northern Vermont University's Johnson campus, one of the threatened state college campuses. "I don't think that's the best decision-making tool to use when you're dealing with a pandemic."

The gambit has divided the state's nervous residents, a July poll by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS found. Many residents question whether it's worth jeopardizing the state's fragile public health success so college kids can have a campus experience.

In Burlington, reassurances by Garimella and public health officials about the strengths of UVM's approach have not eased widespread fear about student behavior, prompting Mayor Miro Weinberger on Tuesday to propose emergency restrictions on gathering sizes and alcohol sales.

Vermont's colleges are finding better success with their most important constituency: their customers. Though enrollment numbers aren't final, nine in 10 students said they planned to attend classes, according to one June survey. More than 15,000 out-of-state students are expected.

James Stowell, who lives outside Albany, N.Y., is one of them. Before the NVU junior returned to the Johnson campus, his father, Tim, tracked Vermont case levels closely and reviewed messages from college officials. He said he feels comfortable knowing that his son is studying at a small school in a rural area.

"If he was going to one of the colleges down here," Tim said, "I don't know if I would be sending him back."

Testing, Testing

SEAN METCALF
  • Sean Metcalf

Vermont colleges will fight the virus in three ways. They will try to limit its ability to enter their campuses, reduce the speed at which it spreads among students and staff, and quickly contain infections before they turn into outbreaks.

Colleges will place special emphasis on students' initial return to campus. The logic is that if infected students can be identified and isolated when they arrive, colleges will start the semester with the most serious threat already behind them.

"The college is just a microcosm of the community it's in," Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in an interview. "[If] the community it's in stays in really good shape, and the college on day one started in really good shape, we shouldn't have a problem."

The strategy is outlined in a 10-page rule book that Gov. Phil Scott's administration released in early July, based on proposals offered by college administrators and Levine's office.

Out-of-state students from higher-risk counties are being told to quarantine for 14 days before or upon arrival in Vermont. Colleges must test them once they arrive. All students, including Vermonters, must be retested a week after coming to campus.

To comply with these requirements, move-in days are highly regimented. The first 500 or so cadets to arrive at Norwich University, on August 8, stepped into a new environment at the military college with precise rules for saying goodbye to parents, queuing for COVID-19 tests and waiting for the test results.

"During that time, it's going to be a little painful," Commandant of Cadets Michael Titus, dressed in military fatigues, warns in a 13-minute instructional video. "We're going to restrict you to your room. We're going to keep you isolated ... in case you or someone else has the virus. We don't want to pass it on and cause an epidemic here on campus."

This process alone is more stringent than those at most other colleges, according to a national study by California Institute of Technology researchers and coauthored by Middlebury senior Benjy Renton. Of the more than 500 schools they analyzed, barely a quarter planned to test students as they arrive on campus.

The Vermont Department of Health will not conduct the colleges' tests — the tens of thousands of swabs to be taken far outstrips the processing capacity of its laboratory. It will only help test in the event of an urgent outbreak or cluster, Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan said.

Seven of the largest colleges are instead tapping a massive new program at the Broad Institute, a nonprofit research center in Cambridge, Mass., affiliated with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that aims to provide lower-cost tests to dozens of universities across the Northeast. The Broad is charging $25 to $35 per test and says it can return results within 24 hours of receiving samples. The lab's current capacity is 35,000 tests per day, though it has never hit even half of that total, according to its website. A Broad spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

The program could give the colleges an important leg up at a time when commercial labs nationwide have struggled with processing delays. "We jumped on it," said Susan Stitely, president of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges, adding that rural Vermont is lucky to have such an option within driving distance.

The state does not require that colleges continue mass testing beyond students' arrival, nor does the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend it. Colleges with Broad contracts are promising to do so anyway, driven by a growing belief that it may be essential to suppressing the virus in a college setting.

One widely publicized model developed by researchers at Yale University and Massachusetts General Hospital concluded that universities might need to test all students every two days. The researchers ran computer simulations of thousands of hypothetical scenarios and didn't find a single one in which testing only those with COVID-19 symptoms would suffice.

The symptomatic approach, permitted under the Vermont regulations and those of many other states, is "like a fire department that only responds to calls once the house is already burned down," coauthor and Yale professor of public health David Paltiel said in an interview from his Stowe residence.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill learned the hard way. Its reopening collapsed within days, after more than 100 students became ill.

Testing every two days is expensive; it's also a logistical nightmare. Paltiel said Vermont schools may require less frequent screenings while the prevalence of the virus in their communities remains low.

Castleton University is the largest Vermont college with no plan to regularly test students. The state college is the only residential school to move its courses fully online, a decision president Jonathan Spiro announced last month as coronavirus cases surged in other states. The college has nonetheless invited students to live on campus this fall, and about 300 — less than a third of the usual figure — will do so.

Spokesperson James Lambert said Castleton isn't doing more testing because the state hasn't required it. "Our course of action on this is simply their recommendations," he said.

UVM, where classes start on August 31, intends to test all students weekly through September 18, and then adjust the rate based on the data. The university is the only one to also test all students before they even come to campus, through the use of a saliva-based test that students send back by mail.

The university's strategy was developed with input from its public health and medical experts, Garimella said.

The president described UVM's $8 million to $10 million testing program as a national pacesetter in a recent column for the online college news site Inside Higher Ed. UVM may pay for it using federal coronavirus relief funds. By persuading more students to stay enrolled, the enormous expense will pay for itself, Garimella wrote.

Mass testing plans vary significantly in scope and strategy. Saint Michael's College, for instance, plans to charge its students a $150 fee to offset the costs of its regimen of 450 randomly administered tests per week.

Champlain College is the only school in Vermont planning to test all students and employees every week. Doing so requires several days of swabbing but will help validate the other distancing and preventative steps the college is taking, said former Vermont Department of Public Safety commissioner Kerry Sleeper, who is consulting with the college on its reopening plans. Because students will continue attending classes while waiting for results, any breakdowns in the testing process — such as transportation or lab delays — could pose a serious problem.

"Certainly, if we did not have testing capacity, then we would seriously have to consider whether we would keep the campus open," Sleeper said.

Up Close Or Virtual?

SEAN METCALF
  • Sean Metcalf

Testing thousands of asymptomatic students and faculty is bound to produce some false positives, each time triggering the disruptive process of isolating that person and anyone with whom they've been in close contact.

Middlebury's director of health services, Dr. Mark Peluso, told the town selectboard last month that's why the college planned to limit sampling to 750 people each week out of more than 3,000 students and staff. The tests will target employees who may be at a relatively higher risk of exposure, such as custodians, as well as students.

Even if colleges manage to prevent outbreaks, the constant game of whack-a-case will affect daily life. UVM's men's basketball team went on a training hiatus in July just days after beginning socially distanced workouts because someone had an "inconclusive" test. The pause was extended when two positive cases were confirmed.

The saliva tests UVM is sending to at least 10,000 students this month produce "inconclusive" results about 2 percent of the time, according to test provider Vault Health, potentially putting hundreds of students in limbo before they even arrive.

UVM junior Maggie Friel said weekly nasal swabs will be one of the only reasons she ventures onto campus during the semester. The 20-year-old food systems major recently learned that her courses would be taught fully online, with the exception of one that is scheduled to meet in person for a few weeks. Friel considers herself lucky, because she was already torn between staying on track to graduate and her concern about unwittingly spreading the virus on campus.

Friel's situation is not unusual. Despite the immense push to reopen campuses, many Vermont students will still experience mostly virtual classrooms. At UVM, only 18 percent of classes are scheduled to be conducted entirely in-person, Garimella estimated.

When Middlebury president Laurie Patton announced the college's reopening plans earlier this summer, she estimated that one-third of courses would be held online. But in a recent analysis of the course catalog, Renton, who is digital director of the Middlebury Campus student newspaper, found that roughly half of courses will be offered remotely, and many others had some online components. Only 13 percent of offerings are conventional in-person classes, the college confirmed.

Renton said he thought the data would help students make more informed decisions about the fall. "It's definitely a very different experience," he said, "and one that I think will involve a lot of hours sitting in your room taking classes."

Middlebury administrators are allowing professors to choose whether to lecture in person. Entire departments have migrated online, including the sociology program in which associate professor Jamie McCallum teaches.

McCallum said his peers made the decision as a group, concluding that it was not in anybody's best interest to hold face-to-face classes. Though he believes Middlebury's overall plan is too risky, he credited officials for letting the faculty choose. "Staff don't have the same privilege," he noted.

Faculty at UVM had to seek permission from department chairs to go remote. Some complain that the process has led to inequities across departments. Others say they felt pressured to keep an in-person piece.

The system has spurred claims that UVM administrators are misleading students about what they're really paying for this fall.

"They believe that students won't stick with UVM and the institution won't survive if we don't give false promises of a return to normalcy, distorted by plexiglass barriers and students yo-yoing between a confusing schedule of in-person and online instruction days," said Nancy Welch, a UVM English professor.

Colleges believe they have a significant financial interest in preserving in-person classes. A June survey by the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation found that nearly a fifth of financial-aid-seeking students might drop out or defer enrollment if their school went to mostly online instruction. Garimella said that even if 10 percent of students bail this fall, the university would lose about $26 million in tuition.

Garimella said UVM has been honest and detailed about the coming semester's unusual character. The university didn't leave decisions about course offerings up to faculty alone because it had a duty to follow through on its commitment to students.

"You can't have it both ways, right? We can't be saying to our students, 'Come back, we're going to have this experience,' and yet you will have no in-person classes," he said.

About 600 students returned to Northern Vermont University's Johnson and Lyndon campuses last week, about 30 percent fewer than last year. They are spread out in single-occupancy dorm rooms and will study in classrooms that are sanitized each day with electrostatic disinfectant sprayers.

"We're just wearing our masks and cleaning everything and taking care of stuff and hoping," said Sandy Noyes, chair of the bargaining unit representing housekeepers and maintenance workers in the Vermont State Colleges System.

Many of the students who decided not to live on campus are still studying remotely or commuting, Northern Vermont University dean of student life Jonathan Davis said. Some 38 percent of courses do not meet in-person.

Sophomore Alexis Follensbee, 19, decided to take the remote option shortly before classes began. She'll study from her parents' house in Morrisville. She made the switch because four of her five courses are not being held in person.

"It made more sense than for me to pay $4,000 and sit in my dorm," she said, referring to the college's room-and-board fees.

Follensbee's best friend, 20-year-old Gabby Simmons, has mostly remote classes, too, but she decided to return to the dorms at NVU's Johnson campus anyway. The Stowe sophomore said she wants to see her friends and take advantage of in-person academic services. "I'm a student who uses those resources a lot, so being on campus is more helpful," she said.

Simmons said she isn't too concerned about the risk of an outbreak: "I think people take it seriously."

Pong Patrol

Those who live in and walk through Burlington's university district tend to disagree with Simmons.

Caryn Long, who has lived on Henry Street near UVM for 36 years, watched as off-campus students continued to host yard parties throughout the pandemic-plagued summer. Last month she got fed up. She walked to a duplex on Weston Street where a dozen or so students lounged in lawn chairs and played beer pong in the driveway. She photographed them from the sidewalk, then sent the image to an informal group of watchdog neighbors.

It was the start of a campaign that has since reached fever pitch. Geology professor Paul Bierman sent photos of swimsuit-clad revelers to UVM president Garimella, Mayor Weinberger, Health Commissioner Levine and other local officials. The images, taken from Bierman's back porch near the UVM campus, documented what appears to have been a boozy backyard slip 'n' flip party that combined watery trips down a slip 'n' slide with the drinking game flip cup.

Bierman also called Burlington police, whom he said did not sound inclined to intervene.

Bierman and Long said it's wishful thinking to believe that college students will act like anything but, well, college students. Bierman believes Burlington residents will pay the price for UVM's social experiment.

"I'm sort of dumbstruck at this point," he said. "We are essentially a city and a university of guinea pigs."

A petition the neighbors circulated, which has gained several hundred signatures, includes a demand that UVM pay for "neighborhood safety patrols" to catch, educate and discipline off-campus students who act irresponsibly.

UVM has responded by vowing to crack down on misbehaving students, whether or not they're living on campus. Students who violate university policies related to COVID-19 "will minimally receive a fine and an educational sanction," Annie Stevens, vice provost for student affairs, wrote in a recent letter to students and families. The college will also notify students' parents, and repeated or egregious misdeeds may result in suspension.

UVM and Weinberger announced on Tuesday that the university will help pay to beef up "educational" police patrols in student neighborhoods. Garimella has also begun encouraging nosy neighbors to snitch on students. UVM offers an online "incident reporting form" to which residents can upload photos capturing students in the act. "We want evidence," Garimella told university trustees during an August 10 meeting.

Campus approaches to student behavior are built around code-of-conduct pledges required by the governor's guidelines. UVM's Green and Gold Promise contains more than 20 separate commitments.

Friel, the UVM junior, equates the Green and Gold Promise to similar pledges required of students in the university's Wellness Environment program. "I took the pledge, and I definitely saw people around me who weren't adhering to staying substance-free in the dorms," she recalled. "It seems a little bit empty to me to have students just promise."

UVM's assurances are ringing hollow to some local officials, too. City councilors blasted the university officials who attended a recent council meeting. Several councilors then staged a press conference last Friday to demand that UVM keep closer watch on off-campus students.

That same day, the governor's office amended its state of emergency declaration so city officials could restrict large gatherings at residences and curtail alcohol sales. Weinberger on Tuesday proposed limiting outdoor gatherings to 25 people, indoor gatherings to 15 and retail alcohol sales to no later than 10 p.m. With those limits, coupled with what he described as recent clarifications and concessions by UVM, Weinberger said he felt more comfortable with the imminent reopening.

Scholastic Vows

SEAN METCALF
  • Sean Metcalf

Colleges are asking a lot of students this fall. In addition to commonsense hygiene and masking measures, students at every school must record their temperatures daily and keep a journal of their close contacts in case the Department of Health's contact tracers need to get in touch. UVM has a medical amnesty provision to encourage students to report close contacts at, say, a party, without risking discipline.

The rules that will govern dining halls make the aisle arrows at grocery stores seem elementary. Sodexo, the food service contractor at Castleton, recently published a 15-minute video walk-through of the campus' reconfigured Huden Dining Hall. Students are asked to sit in the same seats every day and flip green-and-red table cards when they're done eating so staff can keep track of which seats need to be sanitized. Students must also take photos of their table's ID number, so they'll know whether they sat in the same seat as a student later found to be infected.

Some reopening critics argue that students are being set up to fail — that when colleges' plans go sideways, they will take the blame. In a July meeting with state college trustees, Castleton president Spiro acknowledged that college leaders can't merely demand compliance.

"College students are not used to living in a monastery," he said, "so we need to provide them an outlet for their exuberance."

Tiny Sterling College, in Craftsbury Common, is dividing its 114 or so students into small "living and learning pods." Pod mates will reside and take classes together. That way, if someone falls ill with COVID-19, only one pod will need to quarantine.

The model isn't ideal for students whose close friends or sexual partners are in other pods. Some couples have switched their classes to be together in a pod; others have contemplated a socially distanced relationship, associate dean of student life Megan Banner Sutherland said.

Acknowledging the difficult ask, Sutherland said the college is talking to students in ways that emphasize reducing, rather than eliminating, risk. "So in the case folks choose to 'break the rules,' they have the information and resources they will need to make the most harm-reductive decisions," she said in an email.

Still, most students will be under a microscope. Just a day after the first 500 Norwich students moved into the dorms, WCAX-TV reported that students had already "failed to follow COVID-19 rules."

President Mark Anarumo clarified the situation in a public letter, acknowledging that a group of students were reportedly seen "socializing in the front yard of their house not maintaining physical distancing and not wearing masks." Anarumo visited the house personally and determined that the students, who had already been living in Vermont, hadn't violated Norwich's behavior contract.

Coronavirus cases on campuses are inevitable, state health officials have cautioned, especially when out-of-state students first return. UVM, Norwich and Vermont Technical College have reported a combined 12 positive tests so far this month. But Dolan, the deputy health commissioner, said she is confident the state and the colleges have the tools to prevent cases or small clusters from becoming dangerous outbreaks.

"We have really good contact-tracing capacity," she said.

The outlook for campuses will become far more tenuous if the overall prevalence of the virus in Vermont increases — whether from fall tourism, K-12 schools, the wave of out-of-state student arrivals or some combination of factors.

The possibility of another mid-semester shutdown lingers, though most colleges haven't said what specific factors might trigger a decision to close.

UVM's Garimella said his administration will rely on the advice of public health experts. Asked specifically whether he would close campus if a student or staff member died from COVID-19, Garimella declined to say. "I've thought about everything. I read about this incessantly, and I think you have my answer," he said.

Universities have certainly contemplated the scenario. Earlier this summer, lobbyists for UVM and the private colleges asked state lawmakers for legal protections in case students or staff get sick. The COVID-19 Exposure Liability Act, as drafted by UVM, would grant colleges immunity from civil claims for injuries caused by on-campus exposure to COVID-19 unless claimants can prove "willful misconduct" by the college. Even then, plaintiffs could only receive "actual economic compensatory" damages.

The proposal didn't make it out of the House Education Committee before the June recess, but Stitely, the private colleges' lobbyist, expects the committee will consider it again this month. She said the protections are necessary, given that colleges are taking extensive precautions.

"Of course, you've got young people who may be doing things that aren't part of the guidelines," she said. "We have a very litigious society. Even if the lawsuits are frivolous and not based on gross negligence, it could really hurt the colleges to have to be defending these lawsuits because somebody got sick."

It's a "terrible idea" to extend a liability shield to colleges, said Heidi Li Feldman, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. The Vermont colleges' request, Feldman said, amounts to "a license" not to take the precautions that are expected of, say, students. "I find it rather shocking," she said.

Many of the conduct pledges that students must sign can serve a similar purpose, even when they're not explicit. UVM ignored repeated written questions about whether it is asking students to sign a COVID-19 liability waiver before attending classes. But language in the Green and Gold Promise notes that students "can never be completely shielded from all risk of exposure or illness."

Asked on Tuesday whether the Green and Gold Promise is a legal agreement, Garimella replied, "That's a good question, and I don't know that I have an exact answer for you."

A few schools, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have clarified that their student conduct pledges are not legally binding. By not providing a definitive answer— and by avoiding questions about it — UVM is looking out for its own interests, Feldman said.

"The game that's being played here is to create uncertainty," she said, "which makes it harder for people to easily bring suit if the university in fact acts carelessly and people get sick."

While a substantial number of students have chosen to study remotely to avoid the risks of a COVID-19 semester, colleges have yet to report or acknowledge any dramatic drops in overall fall enrollment. Castleton, with no in-person classes, expects enrollment will be down a little more than 10 percent from last year's unusually large class, but it will be in line with the university's three-year average. Garimella said UVM students have "overwhelmingly" chosen to return.

Even the minority of students who aren't willing to pay full tuition for a diminished semester have become a new market to tap.

The pandemic prompted officials at Champlain to create a Virtual Gap Year program for students who want to put off their first year. The $5,000 program, conducted remotely, focuses on student wellness and allows participants to dip a toe into university studies in exchange for a few course credits.

The 15-week program ends with a virtual internship through the college's Centers of Experience, where students will work on projects related to — what else? — COVID-19.

Disclosure: Andrea Suozzo is an adjunct professor at Champlain College.

Correction, August 20, 2020: An earlier version of this article misstated the proportion of virtual courses at Northern Vermont University.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The COVID Semester"