Letter to the editor: Middlebury College’s reopening plans present risks

The recently announced plans for reopening of Middlebury College this fall pose new risks for college employees, students and the larger community. I recognize the college faces a very difficult set of circumstances. But the current plans regarding testing and campus population density fall short of providing for adequate public health and safety.
As a college alum and local resident, I greatly appreciate what the college adds to the community. Moreover, college President Laurie Patton and her team have made great progress in areas that benefit the county, including production of cleaner, more renewable energy. They have also been responsible stewards of college finances.
However, the decision to invite every admitted or enrolled student back to campus in September poses unnecessary risks that some other New England institutions have chosen to avoid.
College life brings students, faculty and staff together in very close quarters. It’s one of the joys of being in or working at a college. 
But at a time when our nation’s rates of a deadly virus are growing by the day, close quarters is exactly what we don’t need. The consequences of overly close contacts — and the inevitable spread of COVID-19 in Addison County that will occur if so many students return — are sadly predictable. 
Three concerns come to mind:
1. Dartmouth and Bowdoin colleges have chosen to greatly reduce on-campus student density to avoid such close quarters. Bowdoin is allowing on campus only first-year students and a very few seniors. Dartmouth is allowing back little more than half its students. Middlebury, however, has taken a “come one, come all” approach, including a likely requirement that some students live together in double rooms.
2. While Middlebury will require students to undergo initial virus testing, college leadership has only said that for the rest of the semester, it will “consider” requiring additional testing. To allow so many students, faculty and staff back on campus — without a full public commitment to ongoing testing — is to invite the possibility of hundreds of cases of a potentially deadly virus. 
3. The college announcement seeks to reassure the community by pointing to the currently low rates of COVID-19 in Vermont. This is naïve at best. When well over 2,000 students return to Middlebury, most of them will be coming from places with much higher rates of the disease — greatly increasing the likelihood that virus and COVID-19 rates will also spike here in Addison County.
Yes, a more limited reopening of the college would likely have financial impacts upon the institution, its approximately $1 billion endowment, and the greater community. But public health concerns should outweigh the dollars. 
I admire the college leadership. But its current reopening plan was created before virus rates rose so precipitously in the past two weeks. I hope that in light of the dangerously increasing rates of COVID-19, the college will reconsider and greatly scale back its plans for this fall.
Gregory Dennis

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