College delays J-term, eyes omicron
“While we expect most cases to be mild or even asymptomatic … these new scenarios are part of a new reality of living with the next stage of the pandemic.”
— Chief Health Officer Mark Peluso
MIDDLEBURY — After discussing current COVID-19 guidance with state, local and regional health experts, Middlebury College has made some changes to the way it will handle the upcoming winter term on campus.
“During the past several days, we have closely followed the emergence of the Omicron variant and its rapid spread in the United States,” wrote Chief Health Officer Mark Peluso and other senior leadership officials in a Dec. 22 memo. “The situation is dynamic, but we remain steadfast in our commitment to providing the best possible student experience, with as much in-person instruction and as many activities as possible.”
The memo comes on the heels of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus this month, which prompted a switch to fully remote instruction for the last few days of the semester and a call for students to leave campus for winter break as soon as possible.
As of Dec. 21, when the college stopped updating its online COVID tracker for the break, the institution had recorded 89 cases for the semester, 69 of them after Thanksgiving break. Most of those were students, and most cases were mild or asymptomatic, college officials said.
To give the campus community a little extra time to prepare for updated policies and protocols, Middlebury has delayed the start of winter term from Thursday, Jan. 6, to Monday, Jan. 10, and will tack on an additional day at the end: Friday, Feb. 4.
Students who don’t already have pre-approved arrival plans will be permitted to return to campus Jan. 8-9.
The college is encouraging all eligible, non-exempted students and employees to get their booster vaccine doses as soon as possible. Those who have not been boosted before they arrive in January will be expected to complete their vaccines within two weeks, and Middlebury is planning to offer booster clinics for that purpose.
Upon arrival, students will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within the previous three days and they will immediately be tested by the college. Five to seven days later, the college will test all students a second time.
After that, COVID-19 testing will be required twice a week — at least for the first couple of weeks of the winter term. Depending on local public health conditions, the college may choose to extend this testing regimen through the end of the term, officials said.
Failure to comply with testing requirements could carry serious consequences, including dismissal from campus housing.
The college will also offer on-campus testing for employees working on campus and interacting with students.
Last semester the college conducted 9,110 COVID-19 tests, but testing was not mandatory as it had been during the 2020-21 school year, when more than 50,000 tests were administered to students and staff.
Winter term classes will be conducted online at first, while the college awaits arrival of testing results, and dining services will be limited to grab-and-go until conditions allow a return to normal operations.
The college will probably also limit group gathering sizes, travel outside of the county, and campus visitors, officials said.
For now, Middlebury is proceeding with its scheduled sports competitions, according to Assistant Director of Athletic Communications Ali Paquette. But spectators are not allowed at this time.
Public health experts expect Omicron will likely lead to a spike in cases, Peluso and his colleagues pointed out in the Dec. 22 memo, but the numbers should be interpreted differently at this stage of the pandemic.
“Early indications are that fully vaccinated and boosted individuals without underlying high-risk health conditions are less likely to experience severe symptoms of COVID-19.”
That said, the college is “prepared to respond to a higher number of positive and likely mild cases on campus” and knows it “must plan for all possible scenarios, including the likelihood that we could quickly exhaust our ability to individually isolate students who test positive for COVID-19 on our campus.”
Middlebury will therefore require students who test positive to complete their isolation period off campus if they can safely do so.
In the event that the number of low-risk students testing positive exceeds the college’s isolation housing capacity, some students may be asked to isolate in their dorm rooms.
“While we expect most cases to be mild or even asymptomatic, as was the case this (fall 2021) semester, the possibilities of high case counts and isolation in place are important factors for students and families to remember as they plan for winter term,” college officials said. “These new scenarios are part of a new reality of living with the next stage of the pandemic.”
And as always, the college is prepared to shift its plans if necessary, they said.
Middlebury posts all of its COVID information on its website, middlebury.edu.
Reach reporter Christopher Ross at [email protected]
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