Some U.S. Colleges (like UVM) Are Showing Us How To Manage Living a New Normal

It’s officially near late October and the colleges across the United States that decided to reopen this fall semester are well past a point of reckoning. The end of August and into September felt ominous, the threat of college life shutting down again like many did in March looming closely. By week two of September we started to hear about which schools were not doing so well, failing to enforce rules that would keep their students safe from a campus outbreak of the coronavirus. But there have been a lot of schools, both in urban and rural places alike, that have held on strong to low case numbers – thanks to frequent, stringent testing policies and a majority of campus culture abiding by the simple practice of mask wearing.

When my brother began his fall semester at the University of Vermont (also one of my alma maters) we were both hopeful but also worried about how students returning to campus from different parts of the U.S. and the world would affect virus caseloads. A lot of worst fears were echoed between us, probably similar to what concerned a lot of parents and college bound students in the country. What about when some college kids still decide to flout the rules and party?

The New York Times identified a handful of U.S. campuses using testing as one of their strongest tools to fight the spread of the virus.

I’ve been so impressed by the outcome of UVM’s early planning and their work around reopening so carefully and managing to keep the campus hybrid – balancing options of remote and in-person classrooms. When visiting briefly a couple of weeks ago we spotted every individual, even when walking or biking alone outside, masked up. It appeared as if the university was successful in creating a kind of culture amongst the student body that shows the world that mask-wearing is a simple given. It probably also helps that it’s already frigid up there in the north, so one might not mind wearing a mask so much – it helps keep your face warm!

UVM’s numbers make it clear they have been doing some things right – keeping their caseloads amongst the lowest in the nation with a campus population of around 10,000 students. Dr. Anthony Fauci praised the university in his visit in mid-September and Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force most recently also made similar remarks during a press conference on campus. Dr. Birx was visiting UVM as part of a national tour of colleges to gather best practices in Coronavirus response.

The news we’ve heard shows a trend. The stricter a school is in enforcing rules and mandating testing or masks, the better they seem to be doing. And there’s no second chance in some cases where students caught partying have immediately been suspended without a tuition refund. At UVM the signing of what they call “the Green and Gold promise” is taken very seriously and enforced stringently. If a student misses even a single weekly covid test, the school stings them with a hefty fine of $250 on their student billing account. If you do it again, they face suspension. Students are incentivized to get that test done every week if they want to keep attending the university and in turn continuously protects the greater community – 43,000 in Burlington and 164,000 in the county from an outbreak.

A testing tent where students are required to go weekly at the University of Vermont.

I’ve focused a lot on UVM, because that’s what I know best and have a connection to. But there are a lot of college campuses like UVM out there that have been enforcing covid rules just as well and have seen great results. So lets rejoice in that keep more than a handful of our communities safe and hope that the same kind of well-funded and resourced testing, acceptance of mask wearing and collective thought in protecting one another can reach the places where it’s lacking right now.

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