After many of us struggled through a year in which connection was, understandably, limited by strict Covid-19 guidelines, this semester’s return to (near) normalcy has in many ways been a relief. We missed sitting in Proc for hours, attending in-person classes and watching our peers compete in home athletic competitions. We’re grateful for these opportunities to connect. But as we strive to create a new normal and redefine what it means to exist in community together this year, it has sometimes felt like we’re ignoring the elephant in the room.
The pandemic is not over. Last month, Vermont reported its highest single-day case counts since the start of the pandemic — breaking its new daily case record twice. In Addison County, cases have risen by 80% in the last two weeks. And here at the college, despite our high vaccination rates and indoor masking protocols, we’ve seen our highest numbers for simultaneous active cases in the past few weeks, peaking at 13 during Thanksgiving break. And of course, many are concerned about the potential threat of the new Omicron variant.
With these factors in mind, we are renewing our call for a more robust testing strategy and increased flexibility in course modality.
Increased Covid-19 testing
The college has stated that its testing program will be “evaluated and adjusted as needed.” In an email sent to the Middlebury community on Sept. 30, Middlebury cited several factors in their decision-making process, including the effectiveness of vaccines, the prevalence of Covid-19 in Addison County and Vermont, and “new developments in the pandemic.”
This moment — when cases are reaching new highs in the state, the county and at the college — seems like the moment to re-evaluate our testing strategy. The college says it has the resources to test all students. Regardless of whether administrators believe we have surpassed the threshold after which we need to reconsider testing, we are asking for change. In light of new developments in the pandemic, we’re not doing enough.
Given the rising prevalence of Covid-19 on campus and in our surrounding communities, the risk of an outbreak seems more pressing than ever. In our first editorial of the year, we called for a comprehensive Covid-19 testing strategy, much like that of last spring, where students were required to test twice weekly. In our September editorial, we wrote that this would allow for detection of cases, both asymptomatic and symptomatic, and would give students adequate information about the state of Covid-19 on campus in order to make the best assessments of risk.
In light of the prevalence of Covid-19 in the state of Vermont, we are again calling for mandatory weekly screening testing for all students.
We could also benefit from more opportunities for opt-in asymptomatic testing, like additional days and appointments throughout the week. With opt-in testing usually only available on Mondays, asymptomatic students who want to be tested on other days of the week must wait until the next Monday or rely on resources in town for testing.
We must take intentional and sustainable actions now to maintain the health of our community while maintaining the possibilities for connection that we’ve had this semester — testing is an integral part of making that happen.
Encouraging flexibility in course modality
Now that we are nearing the end of the fall semester, it’s hard to ignore how many of our class meetings involve Zooming in a couple of quarantined students, or “Zoom buddies” pulling up their sick classmates on their laptops. As professors prepared for a fully in-person semester, the infrastructure and syllabus space to accommodate sick or quarantined students just wasn’t created.
According to the college, students are encouraged not to attend classes if they are experiencing any symptoms of Covid-19, and faculty have the option to offer a remote component to their otherwise in-person classes to accommodate students who wish or need to attend remotely. While professors are trying their best to incorporate remote students into their classrooms, this is challenging without a top-down approach from the administration that provides adequate guidelines, training and resources.
An emphasis on returning to in-person learning this semester has de-emphasized planning for the possibility that students will need to attend classes remotely. If this will be our reality next semester, it is important that the college’s messaging about course and syllabus planning is built around the very plausible possibility that students may get sick and need ways of attending classes remotely. Pretending that in-person courses can exist as they did pre-pandemic ignores the current state of Covid-19 in Vermont and on-campus, and it’s time to face this reality in syllabi.
We love and appreciate the conditions of our new “normal.” But we want it to be robust and sustainable, and that means accepting that conditions in Vermont have changed. It’s far past time for our attitudes and actions to evolve as well.