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College eyes safety as students return

MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE HAS erected a winterized tent on the lawn next to the McCullough Student Center on campus where students arriving this weekend will be able to do such things as eat meals, reserve space for student-organized uses and pick up skates and helmets for use on a new outdoor ice skating rink being set up nearby. The college has also set up fire pits around campus where student can hang out in the COVID-safer outdoors. Photo by Tim Parsons

MIDDLEBURY — After a three-month hiatus, Middlebury College students will return to campus this Sunday and Monday, Feb. 21 and 22, to begin the spring 2021 semester.
Because the pandemic is still very much with us, all incoming students were required to undergo a two-week pre-arrival quarantine, and their first couple of weeks on campus will be carefully managed.
When they get to Middlebury students will go straight to the Virtue Field House to be tested for COVID-19, then head to their dorms for a mandatory room quarantine while they await the results. A week later they will undergo a second round of testing.
“Given the higher prevalence of the virus worldwide, we expect that some students will test positive for COVID-19 on arrival, and we are prepared to offer support,” wrote Dean of Students Derek Doucet in a campus-wide announcement last week.
Students who test positive will be isolated in dedicated campus housing and health officials will conduct contact tracing.
Roughly 2,200 students went through the same routine last August, at the start of the fall 2020 semester. The initial round of testing revealed just two cases. Four more students tested positive over the next three months. All of them subsequently recovered.
But things were different then.
In August Vermont averaged fewer than seven new cases per day. On Jan. 26, when the college emailed detailed instructions to incoming spring semester students, the state recorded 120 new cases. This past Tuesday: 185.
Nationwide case counts have charted similarly.
In their Jan. 26 announcement, Doucet, along with Chief Health Officer Mark Peluso and Environmental Health and Safety Officer Jen Kazmierczak, laid out a number of concerns about the current state of the pandemic:
•  the emergence of new and more contagious strains of the coronavirus.
•  it will be months before vaccines will be made available to most of the campus community.
•  pandemic fatigue has set in and fewer people are complying with public health protocols.
•  cold weather means more time indoors, where transmission of the disease is more likely.
Still, college officials are hoping that what worked on campus in the fall will, with a few tweaks based on experience, work in the spring.
“Assuming a low prevalence of COVID-19 cases on campus and in surrounding communities, and that students are complying with health and safety expectations, we expect to move more quickly than we did in the fall to introduce additional privileges and activities,” Doucet wrote last week. “This might include travel into town and Addison County, more in-person social options, travel to the Snow Bowl and Rikert Nordic Center, and more.”
Middlebury has replaced the “phased reopening” structure it used last fall with a Campus Status webpage, which explains what is and is not permitted on campus each week, based on local and national public health conditions. Visit tinyurl.com/1cl07e85 for more information.
As in the fall, the college will conduct weekly “targeted dynamic testing” for both students and staff.
Addison County Home Health & Hospice will again be assisting with the testing, beginning on Feb. 22 and continuing throughout the semester on Mondays and Thursdays.
“This is a great local partnership and we are very grateful to them,” said college spokesperson Sarah Ray.
And the college will continue to provide the community with testing data through its COVID-19 Reporting Dashboard, which can be found at tinyurl.com/5qpxvbst.
At present there are no active cases at Middlebury.
A handful of students remained on campus after the fall semester, and a few dozen returned in January to conduct winter term research. All of those students have been tested and none were positive.
More details about how the college plans to conduct the upcoming semester can be found in the Spring 2021 Campus Guide, tinyurl.com/1cl07e85.
The first major news to emerge since the creation of that guide involves the Class of 2021.
On Tuesday the college announced its intention — if all goes well — to hold an in-person commencement on May 30. The ceremony will be restricted to seniors who are already studying on campus, however. Families, friends, community members and seniors studying remotely will not be allowed to attend.
Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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