College has handled the pandemic ‘quite well’
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College officially closed its campus Saturday, as scheduled, and most students have gone home to complete their semesters remotely.
Despite three students testing positive for COVID-19 last week, and six people overall, the college’s efforts to safely operate in the middle of a pandemic, with roughly 2,200 students in town, have been largely successful.
To get some perspective on that success, the Independent reached out to Middlebury senior Benjy Renton, who is quickly becoming an expert on COVID-19 and higher education (see our Oct. 22 profile). He saw COVID-19 close up this past January when he was in China doing foreign study and Middlebury evacuated its students there. Since then he has developed a respected newsletter on COVID and colleges that has been called out for its excellence by The New York Times.
The following interview, conducted three days before Renton left campus, has been edited for length.
How well do you think the college handled COVID this semester?
I think we did quite well.
We were lucky that Vermont had few cases to start off with, and that definitely contributed to our success.
But a lot of it can also be attributed to our actions as a community. One of the reasons we’re not seeing a huge outbreak on campus right now (despite three positive tests) is because the interventions and the mask wearing and all that stuff work. The virus has no way to spread.
We’ve also been lucky that the vast majority of the student body believes the virus is real. I know that’s a low bar, but there are people in this country who don’t believe COVID-19 exists. We’re lucky that most of our students do, and were able to modify their behavior. Yeah, we saw some gatherings and parties; we sent home 29 students and sanctioned 108 (for violations); but on the whole people have been very good.
We were also lucky with the weather. Being able to spend more time outside has contributed to our success.
Were there any moments or incidents this semester that made you worry?
There was one weekend (Sept. 19) near the beginning when we sent 22 students home for violations. That shocked a lot of people. At that point I didn’t think we were all going to be sent home, but it was jarring.
For the most part (the college has) been very positive (in its approach). I don’t like strategies that rely solely on disciplining people. I think if you push people to do the right thing they’re going to do the right thing, and I think we’ve had that.
Are there things the college could have done better?
Communication was quite good, but sometimes there was inconsistency or lack of clarity in some of the protocols and procedures. A lot of students were frustrated by the event registration process (which had to be done three weeks in advance). That’s obviously very hard, especially if we’re trying to encourage outdoor events. We don’t know what the weather’s going to be tomorrow, never mind three weeks from now.
The lack of a break also really took a toll on people. I don’t think we realized that when we started our semester. We were just like, “Yeah, we’ll go straight through, it’s going to be fine.” But it’s much harder to do it that way, and it was pretty bad.
What should the college be paying attention to for the spring semester?
How to provide safe ways for students to socialize outside, which would help keep them from engaging in higher-risk activities inside. I think that should be a huge priority. It’s going to be a little easier in the spring just because we’ll be going from cold weather to warm weather, instead of the other way around.
This was a hard semester for many people, especially those who didn’t live with somebody else or who maybe didn’t arrive with a solidified friend group. They struggled a lot. The question (going forward) is: How can we support those people?
Do you think most students will come back in the spring?
I’ve been conducting my own informal survey, asking a diverse range of people to rate the semester on a scale of 1 to 10. I gave it a 7. A lot of people gave it a 6 or 7.
I think most of the senior class, including myself, will be back. We’re too far along to take a semester off or be remote.
A handful of younger students are thinking about not coming back. One said they were worried about the virus, which is understandable.
Classes are another big factor. A lot of students had 100% online classes (this past fall), and I think people just want (an in-person experience).
Most faculty and staff aren’t (on campus). They’re working from home. That’s been weird. A lot of the great experiences I’ve had on campus have been interacting with staff or professors, and that doesn’t exist as much anymore.
So I think for some (first- or second-year) students, it’s worth it to take next semester off if they can count on having two or three more years of a “normal” college experience.
What conditions should prompt the college to reconsider its spring reopening plans?
There have been three points (during the pandemic) where the college and the country have intersected:
• In March, we sent (students) home at a time when there were very few infections in Vermont, as well as the country.
• In August we reopened when parts of the country were on fire and other parts (like Vermont) were doing better.
• Now we’re sending (students) home when most places are experiencing the highest surges we’ve seen.
It’s hard to say what’s going to happen, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the general infection rate in the U.S. is going to be higher in February than it was in August. So I think there will be challenges in bringing students back.
We have to carefully consider what’s happening in Vermont at that time. I’m optimistic that we’ll be good to go. I just hope we’ll be able to get national transmission rates down.
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