Two students and two employees at the Middlebury Language Schools tested positive for Covid-19 near the end of the college’s seven-week summer program, prompting tighter restrictions for those staying on campus. Both students remained in self-isolation on campus, the college announced on Aug. 13, while positive employee cases recovered off campus.
Rumors began to circulate around Thursday, Aug. 12, just two days before many students planned to leave campus. Students in different language programs received conflicting information about the source and location of the outbreak, while some were led to believe that canceled classes were a result of scheduling conflicts, according to Sydney Armor ’24, who attended the German Language School over the summer.
“I did have a friend in [another language school] who was texting me and said, ‘All of my classes got canceled, but they didn’t tell us why,’” Armor said. “They just said it was due to ‘scheduling conflicts.’ And then I explained to her what I had heard, and then she didn’t hear the truth from her school until about two days later.”
Ben Beese ’21.5, also a member of the German school this summer, said the program’s administration communicated some information about Covid-19 exposure and event cancellations on Thursday afternoon.
“Most information we were working with were [essentially] rumors,” Beese said in an email to The Campus. “We heard bits and pieces of info from admins as we ran into them outside but nothing concrete. It sounded like the students might have been from the Spanish program. Maybe they were unvaccinated.”
Until August 13, when the college updated face covering requirements and visitor policies via email, vaccinated students were not required to wear masks in any setting.
According to Beese, masks and Covid-19 guidelines were loosely enforced, especially after arrival testing yielded zero positive results. All students were required to be vaccinated before or during the summer session, and vaccinated students were not tested during the summer.
Meanwhile, student research assistants and lab workers relied on their peers for any information they could gather. Hira Zeeshan ’22, who studied in a neuroscience lab on campus this summer, said she heard about the two active Covid-19 cases from a group of peers.
“I first learned about the Covid outbreak amongst language school students from my fellow RAs,” Zeeshan said. “The school didn’t inform us until a few days later when they started implementing Covid restrictions in the dining halls and in buildings.”
Zeeshan said that many language school students and research assistants did not mix over the summer, instead forming their own factions within the school. She expressed disappointment with some language schools students’ failure to respect Covid-19 protocols. She also suggested that the guidelines for social gatherings among research assistants seemed to be undefined.
“One thing, however, that we were unclear about was that [sic] whether research assistants could have small gatherings, because they were common for language school students,” Zeeshan said. “There was a strong divide between the language school students and the research assistants… RAs were quite disappointed with language school students because we were respectful of the Covid guidelines but had to adjust to this change after a summer of not wearing face coverings.”
Before the outbreak, students experienced a “near-normal” summer session, thanks to a high vaccination rate among students in the language programs and lower rates of infection near Middlebury.
“We were going in town, having parties, masks were just about nowhere to be seen. It was great, and I think everyone felt pretty safe,” Beese said. “We weren’t being tested regularly — after all, we all thought the vaccines were going to prevent infection until Delta took off this summer.”
In the final weeks of the session, the college offered testing to students who needed to show a negative PCR test for international flights, but did not provide universal testing for vaccinated students. Some language schools directors instead encouraged their students to receive testing at a site in town, but there were few available appointments before groups were scheduled to depart on Aug. 13 and 14.
As the college commences what seems to be a more “normal” fall semester thus far — with in-person classes, traditional dining hall operations and sports competitions — student concerns about Covid-19 cases and the spread of the Delta variant linger.
“It was amazing to be back to normal,” Beese said. “Hearing that there were [Covid] cases on campus then and that we should be masking and distancing, etc, made it feel like we’d been too optimistic… So realizing that there was a chink in our utopia was a big wakeup call, and I think we were unsure of what that meant for us personally, for the fall and for the pandemic in general.”
Brinlea La Barge is a news editor.
She studies English and American Literature and Linguistics at Middlebury and is a member of the women's tennis team.
La Barge spent the summers of 2020 and 2021 working for Nantucket Magazine, writing content for the publication and assisting photo shoots. In the past, she interned at WHYY, Philadelphia’s local PBS and NPR affiliate.