Education News

College goes remote as COVID-19 surges

TRIANGLE PARK IN downtown Middlebury buzzes with a mix of local residents and college students during the Midd Night Stroll on Thursday, Dec. 9. Middlebury College gave each of its students $20 in Middlebury Money to spend during the evening holiday shopping promotion, but as the event got under way the college learned that 34 students had tested positive for COVID-19. Photo by Jason Duquette-Hoffman

MIDDLEBURY — A surge in COVID-19 cases at Middlebury College last week prompted an abrupt shift to remote instruction, and the college is encouraging students to leave early for winter break, if they can.

Officials made the decision on Dec. 9 after receiving 44 positive test results over two days — 10 on Wednesday and 34 on Thursday.

Since then Middlebury has reported an additional 20 cases.

On Tuesday the college had a total of 70 active cases — 68 students and two employees, according its COVID-19 Reporting Dashboard.

That number could increase as the college continues to receive the results of ongoing testing.

Changes on campus — which include the curtailment of in-person dining and the cancellation of all gatherings, events and sports contests — were instituted “out of an abundance of caution,” and because it’s so close to the end of the semester, said Chief Health Officer Mark Peluso, Vice President for Student Affairs Smita Ruzicka and Provost Jeff Cason in a Dec. 9 memo.

“With more than 99 percent of students fully vaccinated and many already receiving booster doses, the risk of adverse health outcomes from the Delta variant is low,” they wrote. But “rising student cases that require isolation, ongoing transmission, and the few days remaining in the semester warrant the change to remote instruction.”

The last day of exams at the college is Dec. 19.

COVID SPIKE

Middlebury College has logged more than 80 COVID cases this semester, compared with six in the fall of 2020 and 14 in the spring of 2021. Unlike last year, however, the college has not required ongoing testing throughout the fall 2021 semester.

News of the spike on campus coincided with a recent spike in cases locally and statewide.

In the first two weeks of December Addison County logged 395 positive cases, which is more than 17% of the total number of cases (2,245) since the pandemic began, according to Dec. 14 data from the Vermont Department of Health.

Vermont has more than doubled its total cases in less than six months.

The college received word of the 34 positive cases on Thursday between 5 and 5:30 p.m., just as the Midd Night Stroll, an evening holiday shopping event in downtown Middlebury, was getting under way. The college had purchased $56,000 in Middlebury Money ahead of the event, to help local businesses. Hundreds of students, who had each received $20 of Middlebury Money to spend at Middlebury businesses, thronged the streets Thursday night, in addition to a good crowd of local residents.

Earlier on Thursday, before the test results were received, student organizers had sent out a message encouraging students to be vigilant about COVID-19 protocols during the Midd Night Stroll, including wearing face coverings and observing social distancing, college spokesperson Sarah Ray told the Independent.

The college is conducting contact tracing, officials said, and anyone determined to be a close contact is being notified. Many of the new campus cases appear to be connected, occurring in clusters among people who socialize together, they said.

Additional testing for students will be available at the Virtue Field House through Dec. 16, and employees may get tested at state-run sites or pharmacies, or through their own healthcare providers.

In response to the recent spike in COVID infections, the Vermont Department of Health provided an additional 1,000 COVID tests in the town of Middlebury this past week.

Last week state regulators required health insurance companies working in Vermont to pay for home testing kits for COVID-19.

STUDENT CASES

Middlebury College students who have recently tested positive for COVID-19 have moved into isolation housing on campus or, in a few cases, at off-campus locations, Ray told the Independent Tuesday. If needed, the college has additional off-campus isolation housing.

Students who test positive will remain in isolation housing until they’re cleared by Health Services to depart campus for winter break.

On Monday college officials reported that “students with COVID-19 have been experiencing mild symptoms with many having complete resolution in a few days.”

The college has instructed symptomatic students waiting for test results to stay on campus until they’ve received a negative test result, unless they can drive themselves directly to a safe location and isolate.

As of Tuesday morning, the college was not anticipating that any students who’ve tested positive for the disease will be staying in isolation housing beyond the end of the semester.

In any event, “we will meet the needs of any student requiring isolation on campus past the end of the semester if that is required,” Ray said.

By Tuesday over half of the roughly 2,800 students had left town.

The college has created a webpage with detailed instructions for members of the campus community who have been exposed, are symptomatic, or have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We know this is a lot to process on the last day of fall classes and as students prepare for final examinations,” wrote Peluso and Ruzicka in a Dec. 10 campus memo. “We appreciate your patience, flexibility, and understanding as we manage these changes and look forward to working with you to make this transition as smooth as possible.”

WINTER TERM

Middlebury has every expectation that winter term, which begins Jan. 6, will be held in-person, Ray said Tuesday.

The college will require both prearrival and arrival testing for COVID-19, and students will be required to show proof of their prearrival testing.

They, along with college employees, will also be required to get booster vaccinations by Feb. 14, unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption.

Further details about winter term are forthcoming, Ray said.

Middlebury College posts COVID-19 updates on its website.

Active case data is reported Monday through Friday on the COVID-19 Reporting Dashboard, which can be found here.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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