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College preps for Delta variant of COVID-19

“Wearing face coverings helps fully vaccinated people further reduce their risk of becoming infected with the Delta variant and transmitting it to others.”
— Mark Peluso and Smita Ruzicka

MIDDLEBURY — As Middlebury College prepares for student arrivals next month, officials are bracing for the possibility of yet another semester spent limiting the spread of COVID-19.

“Our plan remains to establish a fully vaccinated campus community, with the exception of a small number of individuals with approved exemptions, and return to as normal operations as possible with in-person classes, events and activities,” wrote Chief Health Officer Mark Peluso and Vice President for Student Affairs Smita Ruzicka in a Tuesday memo to the college community. “At the same time, we continue to monitor developments of the pandemic, including growing concerns about the Delta variant.”

The highly contagious Delta variant is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 and its spread has led to a recent surge in the virus, mostly among the unvaccinated. The U.S. is now averaging more than 100,000 new infections per day, nearly 10 times more than in early summer.

Vermont’s vaccination rate, at 84.6%, is highest in the nation, but its COVID-19 case rate, which had declined to fewer than five per day at the end of June, has also surged recently. On Aug. 11 state officials reported 85 new COVID cases. Almost two dozen people were hospitalized with the disease and of those, seven were in intensive care.

At the same time, Vermont public schools are preparing to reopen for fully in-person learning later this month — with very few state health restrictions in place, despite the fact that fewer than half of all students have been vaccinated.

Middlebury College plans to release its fall 2021 plans sometime next week. In the meantime, Peluso and Ruzicka’s Aug. 10 memo provides the most current overview of that guidance.

FALL ARRIVAL

Middlebury College residence halls are scheduled to open for returning students on Saturday, Sept. 11, with classes to begin the following Monday.

“The number of people testing positive (for COVID-19) is projected to rise in the next several weeks and then decline,” wrote Peluso and Ruzicka. “If these projections hold true, the timing will coincide with our arrival period, and we will have more cases of COVID-19 on our campus in the coming weeks.”

At this time the college doesn’t plan to require a prearrival or campuswide quarantine, but students who are not fully vaccinated, or who are arriving from abroad, will be required to quarantine for up to seven days, pending receipt of a negative test result.

Regardless of their vaccination status, all students from areas with substantial or high prevalence of COVID-19 should wear face coverings in public indoor settings between now and the time they arrive on campus.

“Wearing face coverings helps fully vaccinated people further reduce their risk of becoming infected with the Delta variant and transmitting it to others,” Peluso and Ruzicka wrote. “Unvaccinated individuals should wear face coverings in indoor spaces where there is any risk of transmission.”

VACCINATION

Middlebury announced last May it would require “all students, faculty, and staff living, learning, or working on campus in the fall to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, except for those with an approved medical or religious exemption.”

Students and staff must provide proof of vaccination or exemption before they arrive on campus in September.

Students who don’t follow the college’s vaccine protocols will be barred from campus, unenrolled and given a full refund.

MASKS & DISTANCING

Unvaccinated community members must continue wearing masks inside, unless they’re alone in private or eating and drinking, and outside in groups where physical distancing can’t be maintained.

If conditions in Addison County worsen, the college may require masks in classrooms, dorms and other academic and social spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

For now, Middlebury won’t require physical distancing or limit crowd sizes, and signs indicating COVID-restricted indoor capacity limits have been taken down around campus.

TESTING

Unvaccinated and international students will be tested at least three times during their first seven days on campus.

Otherwise, the college doesn’t intend to conduct surveillance testing as it has done for the past two semesters.

During the 2020-21 school year, in addition to instituting strict public health protocols, Middlebury conducted more than 40,000 COVID tests, with only a handful of positive results.

OTHER PROGRAMS

Recent pandemic conditions have also affected some of Middlebury’s other programs.

Though most of the Middlebury Language Schools operated in-person this summer, both the Bread Loaf School of English and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences were, or will be, held remotely.

As of Aug. 7, the college’s Schools Abroad programs in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, India, Japan and Uruguay have been suspended for the Fall 2021 semester.

Programs in Cameroon, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Morocco, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom are still hoping to operate.

OTHER COLLEGES

Middlebury’s peer institutions around the state are also preparing for an influx of students for Fall 2021, and many have recently announced or updated vaccine and/or masking guidelines.

Officials at the University of Vermont, which will require all students to be vaccinated barring an exemption, announced on Aug. 5 they expect everyone on campus to be vaccinated, though the latter has yet to be officially mandated.

Norwich University will test incoming students and is considering a mask mandate.

The Vermont State Colleges system, which is comprised of Castleton University, Northern Vermont University (Lyndon and Johnson) and Vermont Technical College, is also considering an indoor mask mandate.

Dartmouth College and the town it resides in, Hanover, N.H., will require masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

Middlebury College maintains a campus COVID-19 status page on its website: tinyurl.com/a2yxzhma. To see the latest updates from college officials, visit middlebury.edu/office/covid-19-updates.

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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