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Saturday, Apr 1, 2023

It’s time to stop pretending and start testing

Since the start of the academic year, Colby has had 11 Covid-19 cases, Amherst has had 23, and Bowdoin has had 42. Tufts has had 25 this week alone, and a significant outbreak at Connecticut College resulted in 180 positives since students returned to campus. And while we too like to believe that Vermont is a magical, mountainous utopia where Covid-19 has ceased to exist, we also know that this is not the case. President Patton herself acknowledged in her fall welcome email that this semester does not offer “the COVID-free return that we had hoped for.” 

As Middlebury students, we are currently suspended between the refreshing return to normalcy and the nauseating worry that there could be invisible cases piling up. Unlike the aforementioned schools that are testing their student body at least once — if not twice — weekly, we truly don’t know when our blissful sense of denial may come to a grinding halt. 

The spread of the Delta variant and the subsequent breakthrough cases late this summer caught many of us off guard, and we as a board acknowledge that Middlebury may not have anticipated the need to test all 2,800+ of us. However, this need is now starkly apparent. Hundreds of maskless students crammed into Proctor dining hall like sardines, residential halls filled beyond their usual capacity and students all but touching shoulders in classrooms are only some of the scenes on campus this week that ultimately necessitate routine testing. 

What makes this difficult is that we’re grateful for these same moments. We missed cramming 15 people at one table, piling into our friends' dorm rooms and hearing the chatter of our classmates by our side. But we want these practices to be sustainable. Without testing, and without consistent and clear messaging, they’re far from it. At the end of the day, students aren’t going to be dissuaded from going to Atwater mosh pits if they know they have the same chance of being exposed on chicken parm night.  

Inherent contradictions like these only make it harder for students to know which rules to follow. Spaces like the college store and the gym have maintained capacity limits while most other space guidelines have dissolved. Vaccinated international students coming from low risk areas were tested several times on arrival, but students hailing from high exposure domestic regions were not. Some students report not being asked for their PCR test upon arrival, while others expressed frustration that they could not acquire an arrival test on campus if they couldn’t receive one elsewhere for free. Although guests are restricted from accessing campus, students have no limits on travel or interactions they can have outside of Middlebury. 

All of this begs the question: why has Middlebury seemingly thrown in the towel when it comes to preventing community spread? As can be seen at peer institutions with similarly high vaccination rates, relying on those numbers isn’t enough. Our lack of testing also renders members of our community even more vulnerable — such as immunocompromised individuals and the children of faculty and staff under 12, for whom the risk of becoming seriously sick remains evident. 

We’re not asking for campus to be put under draconian guidelines. Rather, we want to see systems and structures enacted so that our “normal” college experience — whatever that has come to mean — can remain feasible. As far as we’ve seen, there doesn’t seem to be a feasible Plan B in regard to accommodating a large volume of sick students. Our best shot at a safe and fulfilling semester means making Plan A work equitably and realistically. 

Ultimately, we as students are warned to be careful, but are not given the resources to do so. And we know that if the s**t hits the fan, we’ll be the first to shoulder the blame. Safety measures like testing may be financially or logistically inconvenient, but simply pretending like we don’t need them anymore is not the answer. 

It's far past time to start testing if we care at all about preserving these delicate moments of authentic college life — and the lives of our most vulnerable community members. If we look to peer institutions for clues, the reality is that there are almost certainly cases on campus as we speak — it’s now up to Middlebury to decide how many there will be. We're not disposable.