In just a few weeks, students will start migrating from around the country and the world into Vermont – the largest influx the state has seen since Covid-19 closed most of the state in March.
To prepare, state officials earlier this month rolled out suggested Covid-19 safety guidelines for campuses that outline the social distancing, mask-wearing, testing and other measures required in order to minimize the spread of the virus.
Those guidelines are intended as the minimum that Vermont colleges must follow; most of the schools themselves have created contracts they’ll be asking students to sign regarding safe behavior.
Many higher ed institutions were struggling financially before the Covid-19 crisis, and opening this fall is critical. Room and board fees alone are a crucial piece of the revenue picture, and colleges are working hard to create an environment where students can travel from elsewhere without creating a Covid-19 outbreak when they arrive. Normally, about 56,000 young people attend college in Vermont, although it’s not clear yet how many will do so in the coming semester.
State officials and others who have worked on college reopening guidelines say they are confident the students will do the right thing. The University of Vermont’s Green and Gold Promise, a behavior contract for the Covid-19 era, includes consequences if they don’t – including immediate removal from campus. Faculty and staff who ignore the guidelines face disciplinary action, too.
Students will rise to the occasion, said former Norwich University President Rich Schneider, who is chairman of the state’s task force on reopening higher ed.
“It’s time to put on your adult pants now, or skirts, or whatever,” he said at a press conference on the college rules July 7. “It’s time to start appealing to students about being their adult best self. I think it’ll be great for students, faculty and staff to all work together to keep each other safe.”
But members of UVM’s larger community are skeptical.
“The frontal lobe isn’t quite developed yet,” said Megan Humphrey, an artist who has lived in Burlington’s Old North End since she herself was a UVM student decades ago. Humphrey enjoys the energy and creativity of the students, but she’s also seen them ignoring social distancing guidelines this summer.
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With a behavior contract that requires them not to get too close to each other and to wear masks when interacting, “we’re asking them to respond and be respectful in a way that is not really what they are necessarily coming to Burlington to do,” Humphrey said.
About 62% of UVM’s students travel from out of state, according to the school. The proportion is even higher at neighboring St. Michael’s, at Middlebury College, and at Norwich University, all of which are welcoming students back to campus,
“People are coming from some real hots spots all over the country and the world and potentially bringing it into Burlington and not worrying enough about it,” Humphrey said.
Just a few weeks ago, the picture was more positive. Vermont’s a leader in the nation for its low Covid-19 infection rate, and Gov. Phil Scott had a goal of making Vermont the safest place in the nation to attend college. But with cases of the virus now erupting in states like Texas and Florida, the conduct of students who arrive from elsewhere is a critical aspect of containing the spread.
Surveying students to see what works
Prof. Sherry Pagoto, director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for mHealth and Social Media, recently carried out a series of focus groups to determine how likely it was that students would follow UConn’s safety guidelines, which are similar to those at UVM.
Students were markedly unenthusiastic about UConn’s 14-day pre-semester quarantine, she said.
“You’re sitting in your dorm room by yourself, and your friends are steps away,” she said. “They haven’t seen their friends since March. They felt like it would be unrealistic to think people are going to stick to that.”
But they showed a high tolerance for frequent Covid-19 testing.
“Their only concern was if there would be long lines if they had to get to classes and things,” Pagoto said.
Mask-wearing, as with older adults, was a mixed bag. Students said they were used to it, and expected to wear masks in class. But “where they could see things falling apart with their peers was in social activities,” Pagoto said. “People, when they are socializing, tend to take off the masks.
“One person had a hearing impairment so lip-reading is important,” she added. “It’s a real concern.”
Vermont students themselves are skeptical that others will follow the rules.
“As someone in this age group, I’m very familiar with the type of mindsets that are typically adopted by college students,” said a UVM junior who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly. “There is such a thirst for instant gratification and partying culture, hookup culture. Those traits we all have are so overpowering there’s no way the UVM faculty can ensure that these goals will be met outside of the UVM campus.”
Atticus Eiden of Stowe, who is headed to UVM as a freshman in the fall, said he’s been attending parties all summer where there was no social distancing in evidence.
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“I think people are going to be wearing masks, but I don’t know how they are going to contain kids from being kids,” Eiden said. “I feel like the guidelines they gave are a great idea, but I can’t imagine that people are going to obey them entirely. I’ll try to stay within the rules as best as I can.”
“It does seem like people are still going to have parties,” said Ciara Tomlinson, a UVM junior from the Boston area who lives off campus in Burlington. She has read through the Green and Gold Promise. “I know it’s what is required, but I don’t think that everyone is going to follow it.”
Pagoto’s research sample is tiny; she talked to about 35 students in all, in groups of five. She said she learned through her work that faculty and administrators need to work closely with students – and not just student leaders – to come up with rules that will stick. In response to concerns about quarantine, she’s also created a two-week research bootcamp to give her own students something to do while preparing to attend class.
She added that while students are openly skeptical about others’ ability to follow the rules, they’re also as concerned as older adults about getting back to their normal lives.
But “there’s a very big drive to be social. We can hit them over the head about it, but it’s where you are developmentally at that age. We can’t say, ‘Go against your biology,’ because that never works,” she said.
“If you took a bunch of 45-year-olds and asked them to do this, they wouldn’t either, in my opinion,” she added. “I see it already in the community.”
After Pagoto posted on Twitter about her work, dozens of people in higher ed asked her to send them her focus group script. She’s sharing it with anyone who asks.
“We are all trying to figure this out,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of time.”
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