hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2020


Now back to class?

Area colleges make plans to welcome students back as virus surges nationally



A seating area behind the Case Campus Center at Skidmore College awaits the arrival of students. The college is among several in the region that aim to resume in-person classes this month.Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


When Castleton University begins its fall semester this month, some students will return to on-campus dormitories and resume the rhythms of residential college life.

But last month, the university reversed a previous plan and decided to cancel one major component of the campus experience: in-person classes. On July 15, Interim President Jonathan Spiro announced that, with coronavirus cases rising sharply across much of the nation, the university would shift almost entirely to online instruction.

“Vermonters are doing a great job of containing the virus,” Spiro said in a statement announcing the change. “However, the public health situation in the rest of the country has dictated that we move nearly all of our courses online for the fall semester.”

Across much of the region, however, institutions of higher learning are forging ahead with plans to resume many regular classes and campus living arrangements – accompanied by a variety of new public health precautions -- for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March.
From Skidmore to Bennington to Williams, colleges are preparing for a fall semester with various combinations of in-person and online teaching, on- and off-campus housing -- and revised academic calendars that in most cases will send students home for the year by Thanksgiving, when some health officials have warned the onset of flu season could be accompanied by a new wave of Covid-19 infections.

The colleges’ reopening plans are a source of concern in local communities, where some worry about the risks posed by the pending influx of young people – some of whom will be arriving from states like Florida, Texas and California that have large coronavirus outbreaks.

The potential risks were highlighted last month by news reports from Albany, N.Y., where local health officials by late July said they had traced 40 Covid-19 cases to a July Fourth weekend party attended by perhaps 200 “college-aged” people.

But in college towns that have been unusually quiet for the past five months, the arrival of students offers the prospect of returning to a normal rhythm of life – and economic activity.
In Castleton, for example, Town Manager Michael Jones said the absence of students and college-related activities in recent months has been sorely missed.

“We definitely feel a lack of their presence,” Jones said. “The university plays a huge role in our economy. The stores and restaurants and fast-food places love students.”


Aiming to adapt
At Bennington College as well as Skidmore and Williams, administrators say they plan to offer a mix of in-person and online classes this fall. With the pandemic far from over, the online offerings will help to accommodate students who choose not to return to campus – as well as faculty members who want to minimize the risk exposure to Covid-19. Online classes also will serve students who may be on campus but are unable to attend in-person sessions because of illness or quarantine.

At Castleton, which is part of the Vermont State Colleges system, Spiro said the decision to switch almost entirely to online classes will minimize the academic disruption in the event that the campus has to shut down again if another statewide state-at-home order is needed.

Castleton has 2,400 full- and part-time students. Normally, about 1,000 live on campus. The rest commute or are in low-residency graduate programs.

Even though classes will be online, the college is inviting students to return this fall for a “residential campus experience” that includes many of the services and resources students usually expect.

But there will be differences. All students, faculty, and staff will be required to take the “Spartan Pledge,” committing themselves to strict observance of Covid-19 prevention protocols, participation in mandatory testing and health screenings, cooperation with contact tracing, and encouraging others to comply. Because classrooms will be empty, maintenance staff will have more time to clean high-use areas.

State quarantine rules in Vermont are based on the number of active Covid-19 infections in a traveler’s county of origin. Depending on where students are coming from and how they travel, they may not need to quarantine at all, but some will be required to quarantine for up to 14 days at home or on campus before classes start. The fall schedule has been moved two weeks earlier and will begin Aug. 18 and end Nov. 24.



James Lambert, the associate dean of institutional advancement at Castleton University, stands outside the Woodruff Hall on the university campus in Castleton, Vt. photo by Joan K. Lentini


At Castleton, student choices
As of late July, Castleton University spokesman James Lambert said the college had no idea yet how many students will return and how many will choose to study at home. They have until Aug. 5 to decide.

“Student opinions are really mixed,” Lambert said. “Some want to be on campus, and some want online classes only.”

The library and dining halls will be open “in some form,” Lambert said, so “there will be some normalcy.”

The decision to hold all classes online “was made with faculty feedback,” Lambert said. “Some were happy, and some were looking forward to in-person classes. They already had the option to teach online. It wasn’t a huge change for them.”

If students are daunted by coronavirus challenges and want to hold off on college until the situation improves, they “always have the option to defer admission and take a year off,” Lambert said. “There’s no change in policy.”

Returning students won’t be confined to campus. Some have off-campus jobs and other commitments, Lambert said.

“We have some pretty good precautions in place,” he added. “It’s the safest environment we can create.”

Jones, the town manager, said it’s hard to gauge how much the town lost economically when the college shut down in March, because all non-essential local businesses had to shut down as well.

“The general public hasn’t been able to use the businesses either,” he explained, though he added that the university “plays a huge role in our economy.”

Jones said he’s heard concerns from residents about “young people” not wearing masks – which will become mandatory Aug. 1 under a state order -- or observing social distancing.
“That may cause some reservations” about students’ return, he said.

“The university is good about following published guidelines,” Jones said. But off campus, he added, students “will do what they do.”

Students returning to Castleton from outside the region aren’t the only potential source of new Covid-19 infections in the community. Lake Bomoseen is ringed with second homes, many of which are owned or rented by people from out of state, and Castleton residents have questioned whether those visitors are obeying the state’s quarantine rules, Jones said. If the out-of-staters come from viral “hot spots,” they may not want to go home in the fall and will overlap with the arriving students, he added.


Bennington: Quarantine on campus
Unlike Castleton, where almost 70 percent of students are Vermonters, almost all of Bennington College’s 800 students are from out of state or abroad. They live on campus or in college-owned housing, and the campus is comparatively isolated from the surrounding town.

Bennington College chose to have all students enter quarantine with assigned housemates when they arrive on campus. They’ll undergo Covid-19 testing and must commit to coronavirus precautions, including daily health screenings. The college’s website warns that under state rules, “violators must be removed immediately.”

Classrooms and other facilities will be open with restrictions. Students on campus may be asked to attend a class online to reduce the number of students in a classroom. The fall schedule, which starts on Sept. 1, has been divided into two seven-week blocks with a five-day break in between. Students must stay on campus through the break and leave on Dec. 11. They may go off campus within the limits of the state’s travel policy, but if they go home during the term, they’ll have to finish their courses remotely.

Natalie Redmond, a spokeswoman for the college, said in an e-mail that about 650 undergraduate students are expected for the fall. The college is polling them to see how many plan to come to campus, how many will study remotely, and how many will take a gap year with possible credits for independent study.

John Bullock, a chemistry professor who is serving as acting provost and associate dean for faculty affairs, said the college is letting faculty decide how they’ll teach their courses.

“About 30 percent of them will be teaching remotely, some for health concerns and others for pedagogical reasons around the problems in running their courses with the restrictions imposed by necessary safety precautions,” Bullock said in an e-mail.

Redmond said about 17 percent of students stayed on campus when it shut down in March, unable to leave because of travel restrictions or safety.

“We have not had any reports of students not complying with college or state Covid-19 guidance when they are in the local community,” she wrote.

Bennington College has a relatively small impact economically on the town of Bennington, Town Manager Stuart Hurd said. But over the past few years, students have become more active in the community, especially through programs in local schools. The town has a large medical center, is a local industrial and retail hub, and encourages tourism.

“I don’t think anyone knows how this will come down,” Hurd said.
But if the college’s plans “include careful use of masks and social distancing and care for the community, it shouldn’t be that difficult for us to welcome them back,” he said.


Skidmore: ‘Nearly all’ returning
At Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., administrators have committed to “doing all we can bring all or nearly all of the Skidmore student body to campus” this fall while complying with health and safety guidelines, according to a statement posted on the college website.

The college is rearranging its spaces to allow for social distancing, including limiting dorm rooms to two students. The overflow will be housed off campus in local hotels, with the college providing shuttle service and parking.

Skidmore’s 2,500 students are drawn from 40 states and 65 countries, with international students making up 12 percent of the student body.

“We anticipate that most of our students will return to campus this fall,” college spokeswoman Sara Miga said in an e-mail.

Others may defer admission, take a leave of absence, or study at home.
“We are working hard to provide a high-quality educational experience for those students through remote avenues,” Miga wrote.

For students arriving from locations on New York’s travel advisory list, Skidmore will provide 14 days of local quarantine housing, including a private room and food service. All students will be tested when they arrive on campus. Masks in public spaces and keeping social distance will be required, and students will have to do symptom checks daily.

Classes will start Aug. 24, two weeks early, and end Nov. 20, before Thanksgiving. About 60 percent of faculty members have opted to hold classes either in person or in a hybrid format, and the rest will hold digital classes only, Miga said. There will be no fall break or public events that would bring non-students to the campus.

The college had planned to use an antigen test for regular testing, but it changed plans after that type of test was implicated in a rash of positive results in the Manchester, Vt., area that may have been false. Instead, Skidmore will run its coronavirus testing program with the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. The institute is providing testing services to a number of Massachusetts colleges and universities, including Williams.

Although Skidmore expects to incur significant expenses for testing, contact tracing, more housing, and other precautions to prevent transmission of Covid-19, it has pledged not to increase fees or tuition or reduce financial aid this year. Tuition is $58,000 for the 2020-21 academic year, with room and board costing an additional $16,500 or more.

Saratoga Springs relies heavily on summer tourists to keep its downtown thriving. With spectators barred from the Saratoga Race Course this year, and with most performing arts events canceled, tourism is down. But the city still draws visitors for work, shopping, nightlife and medical care at Saratoga Hospital and related practices.

When it comes to concerns about coronavirus, “it’s not just students, it’s also tourism,” said Eileen Finneran, the city’s deputy commissioner of public safety.

Finneran said local authorities are prepared to break up crowds and “educate as much as we can.”

“Businesses know what they have to do,” she added.

Although her department has seen its staff reduced by furloughs because of pandemic-related budget constraints, complaints will be investigated, she said.


Williams: Stressing safety, science
As of late July, nearly 1,700 of Williams College’s 2,300 students had confirmed that they would return to campus in Williamstown, Mass., said Jim Reische, the college’s chief communications officer. Another 350 will study remotely, more than 200 are taking either a gap year or personal leave, and about 50 were uncertain.

Reische guessed that those who have yet to decide are mostly international students who have been affected by the U.S. government’s recent threats to their visas. About 9 percent of the student body at Williams is drawn from foreign countries, Reische said.

Students, faculty and staff who are returning to campus will have to commit to the college’s Covid-19 prevention policy, which requires masks, social distancing, regular testing and other measures.

Beginning in August, Williams will bring in students in groups of about 175 per day. Students in high-risk areas will be asked to quarantine themselves for 14 days before they arrive.

All students will be tested for Covid-19 on arrival and will be quarantined in their dorm rooms until the results come back – a process that’s expected to take 24 to 48 hours. Students who test positive will remain in quarantine as necessary. The Broad Institute will provide regular testing through the term.

A small number of dining halls and on-campus eateries will be open for takeout only. Fall sports can meet for practices, but there will be no games or off-campus travel. All public events, including parents’ and alumni weekends, are canceled.

Classes at Williams will begin Sept. 10. All classes will be available online, even if they’re held in person.

Reische said the college has 300 faculty members, and many of them are older than 60, with chronic health conditions or household members who are at risk.

“We gave them a lot of latitude” about how they’d teach their courses, he said. “They made their own decisions. They’re pretty happy we didn’t impose one-size-fits-all.”

The term ends Dec. 11, but students are expected to go home for Thanksgiving and finish their courses remotely. When the college shut down in March, some students either couldn’t travel home or wanted to stay at the college because their homes weren’t conducive to studying, Reische said. Students in those situations can petition to stay on campus, he said.
Williams’ winter term has been canceled. The spring term usually starts in February, but the college has no plans that far ahead, Reische said.

“This will give us a chance to see what we learn from the fall,” he said.
The college has cut the cost of attendance for the academic year by 15 percent, to $63,200, and students on financial aid will receive other breaks. Students studying remotely won’t be charged for room and board.

Although the public can’t come onto the campus, students will be able to go into town.
“We expect them to uphold the state safety standards,” Reische said.

They’ll need the dean’s permission to leave the Williamstown area.

Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch said the students’ return will provide a lift to the local economy after a summer in which many local cultural attractions were closed or canceled.
“Restarting more college-related activity will be a good boost locally,” Hoch said. “Our summer season was largely lost due to the shutdown of the Clark [Art Institute], Williamstown Theatre Festival, and the students and summer camps that use the campus. The rest of the year, we rely on the activities of the college and visitors to the college.”

In a normal academic year, that would include not just students, faculty and staff, but also parents and alumni during their respective weekends and college sports fans who visit for games. All of those visitors will be missed, Hoch said.

The infection rate in Berkshire County is low, and townspeople are concerned about a large influx of students from outside the region.

But “the college has a thoughtful, well-planned approach to bringing students back,” Hoch said. “It’s a science-driven way of reconstituting the college community.”

Unlike casual visitors who may not undergo testing or monitoring, college students “will be controlled,” Hoch said. “It will take a significant reason to go farther afield and come back.”