College parties raise concerns

We can’t say this emphatically enough: please don’t travel back to Middlebury.
— Middlebury College officials to graduating seniors

MIDDLEBURY — When does an assembly of people rise from a gathering to a party?
Middlebury College officials and in-town neighbors of the school seem to be at odds over that question after groups of young adults presumed to be graduating Middlebury seniors coalesced this weekend in get-togethers that elicited varying reports of noise. The groups also seem to have tested the limits of Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s current social distancing rules, which have been hailed as effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19.
The Independent has communicated with three people who complained about excessive noise and partying coming from the campus this past weekend, particularly on Saturday. That was the night before what would have been Middlebury College’s commencement ceremony. The college called off the May 24 ceremony earlier this spring in order to keep students, families coming from out of state, and the greater Addison County community safe from COVID-19. Instead an alternative online celebration was held on Sunday (see story here).
After hearing that some seniors planned to return to campus before the celebration to see friends in person a last time before they got their diplomas, college officials took steps to head off a mass arrival of outsiders who had been away from campus for months. A trio of officials led by Dean of Students Baishakhi Taylor sent a May 19 letter to all seniors — and their parents — urging them specifically to stay away.
“We can’t say this emphatically enough: please don’t travel back to Middlebury,” they wrote, with the italics in their letter.
In addition to making the case for keeping themselves and those they come in contact with safe, the officials warned the students that if they came in large numbers it could hurt the college in other ways. “The mere perception that a recurrence was due to Middlebury students not following the governor’s orders could adversely impact students returning in the fall,” they wrote. “We need you to help us maintain the best possible conditions on campus now, so that we have a greater possibility of opening in the fall.”
On Sunday, college neighbors and others were reporting large groups of students gathering on campus, making noise and gathering in large groups. Some brought it to the attention of college officials. That brought forth a letter to South Street neighbors from a group of the most senior college officials on Sunday. 
“We share your concern deeply,” they wrote in a letter signed College Leadership Group, which is led by President Laurie Patton. “Regarding the behaviors you have observed, we will gather the facts and immediately investigate. If you have any information, including photographs, could you please share those with us as soon as possible so we can move forward.”
They explained the steps the college had taken preceding graduation weekend, including having Public Safety officers patrolling and monitoring the size and behavior of groups, and working with Middlebury police.
A second letter to neighbors sent on Tuesday went into more detail about what steps Middlebury had and would continue to take, including the investigation into complaints. The Senior Leadership Group was scheduled to meet Wednesday after the deadline for this story. 
In spite of the neighbors’ reports and the apparent existence of photographs of large groups, which the Independent has not seen, college officials on Wednesday could not confirm any parties.
“We’ve investigated and to date cannot confirm any parties on either day (Saturday or Sunday),” Sarah Ray, Director of Media Relations at the college told the Independent in an email.
Ray did acknowledge that “at sunrise on Sunday morning, two Public Safety officers monitored the football field and observed several small groups there (average group size was 7). They also observed two small groups of students at the soccer field.
“The officers engaged with each group,” Ray continued, “and all complied with the officers’ request to maintain their social distancing, which they had been observing since they arrived.”
In their letters to the community, college officials noted that not all students left campus or left town when the campus was closed in mid-March. A number were allowed to stay either because they lived in other countries or had other extenuating circumstances. Some students who resided off campus also continued to live in town.
“The students on the football and soccer fields stated that they had been staying in the area or in Vermont since early April,” Ray said. “There was one small group of students at the football field that had been living on our campus since March.”
Neighbors of the college were reluctant to put their specific complaints on the record with their names. Those we communicated with just wanted the college and the students to know how unsafe they felt by this incursion into their safe distance they and the community at large had built since the start of the pandemic. 
College officials are, for the most part, also local residents. And they seemed to hear and in large part understand those feelings.
Ray offered this conclusion.
“We understand it is possible that some students returned to Middlebury despite our communications,” she said. “It appears that this is happening in college and university towns across the country during the days when graduation ceremonies would have taken place. We are committed to continuing to work with the town, our neighbors, and the rest of the community to maintain the safest environment possible.”

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