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College decides to forgo final phase of reopening

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE STUDENTS study outside with masks in front of Mead Chapel earlier this fall. The college’s plan to loosen up COVID-19 restrictions this month hit a snag when the state kept some mass gathering restrictions in place longer than anticipated.

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College officials had hoped the campus community could transition to the third and final phase of the fall reopening plan this month, but that is not going to happen.
“Given current conditions and state of Vermont limits on gathering sizes and physical distancing requirements, we cannot move to Phase 3 as we conceptualized it,” wrote President Laurie Patton, Provost Jeff Cason and Acting Dean of Students A.J. Place in a campus-wide announcement Tuesday. “When we formulated our plans for the phased opening of the Vermont campus, in July and August, we imagined that we might come to a point where the nation and the world would see a dip in cases of COVID-19, and where we would be able to advance to Phase 3, with an expansion of travel and both on-campus and off-campus activities. That has not happened. Instead, we are seeing continued spikes both nationally and in the regions around us.”
Middlebury’s fall reopening plan called for a highly restrictive Phase 1 upon student arrival, a transition to a less restrictive Phase 2 by Sept. 15 and a transition to Phase 3, with increased freedoms, by Oct. 5, if conditions allowed.
The first two phases proceeded more or less according to schedule, but as the nation prepares to face down a second wave of COVID-19 this autumn, even as it continues to respond to the first, college officials are exercising caution.
“As we observe the experiences of other colleges and regions, we have seen, again and again, how quickly conditions on campuses can change,” said Patton, Cason and Place. “We have learned from colleges much like Middlebury that it only takes one exposure for an outbreak, and one outbreak to prompt an entire campus lockdown, with no in-person learning or dining, no access to athletics facilities, and no gatherings of any kind. We want to avoid this at Middlebury, and continue the practices of open learning that we have enjoyed so far.”
Two students and one employee have tested positive for COVID-19 since students began arriving in August. All three have recovered, and there are no active cases on campus, according to the college’s COVID tracker.
In Addison County rates of COVID-19 infection remain relatively low, though Champlain Orchards in Shoreham did experience an outbreak of 28 cases earlier this month. State health officials say that outbreak has been contained.
On the Middlebury campus students have begun chafing under Phase 2 restrictions, which have lasted more than two weeks longer than hoped.
“Many of you, including first-years who are starting to form friend groups, and senior Febs planning for their last weeks on campus, have shared that you would like more opportunities for connection, and we have heard you,” said Patton, Cason and Place.
In an effort to meet student needs, college officials have drawn up what they call “Expanded Phase 2,” which includes some “small but significant” changes to dining, studying and gathering restrictions.
The changes, which went into effect Tuesday, allow students to choose any dining hall on campus for meals; access all but the smallest resident dorms between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.; and take advantage of more flexible study spaces and schedules.
In November the college will roll out an expanded calendar of “Stressbusters,” including yoga, guided walking meditations and “speed-friending” for first-year students. Plans for performing arts and sports-related activities are forthcoming, officials said.
As recently reported by the Independent, students are scheduled to depart campus on Nov. 21 and finish the fall semester remotely. January term will also be held remotely, and spring semester classes will begin Mar. 1.
Because students will not be on campus in February, Middlebury will hold an informal, student-only Senior Feb celebration before students leave campus in November.
The college will share details of that event, as well as further plans for the spring semester, at a later date.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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