Colleges get their marching orders for fall, including mask mandate

Rear Admiral Richard Schneider (retired) served as president of Norwich University for 28 years. He leads Vermont's college reopening task force. Screen grab from ORCA Media video.

by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Governor Phil Scott today released the state’s college reopening plan. The college task force is led by Rich Schneider, former president of Norwich University.

Schneider pointed out that while these are the minimum requirements all colleges must adhere to; the schools could institute even stricter requirements.

The plan is driven by three factors: Decrease risk of COVID entering the campus; Decrease risk of transmission once on campus; and Contain infections if they occur.

Among the requirements, the colleges must mandate facial coverings for all staff and students while on campus. All staff and students will be tested for COVID-19. Students will be tested on their first day and will be tested again a week later.

Social distancing in dorms, classrooms and dining halls will be applied to reduce the chance of infection. This will mean in many cases using larger spaces for classrooms or reducing class sizes, staggering dining times and reducing students per dorm room.

The usual protocols for every Vermont resident will then be put into place, such as contact tracing and quarantining, as necessary. This will also reduce the impact on the community.

All on-campus and off-campus students must follow the rules.

Schneider and the other college leaders at the governor’s press briefing today were adamant about consequences if staff or students do not follow these mandates. Discipline could lead to termination for employees and expulsion for students.

As most colleges have already announced, the fall term will begin earlier in August, October breaks will be canceled, on-campus learning will end by Thanksgiving. The semester will be completed online as needed. The spring term likely will begin as late as spring, in order to avoid the usual winter flu season as much as possible.

One of the more prominent unanswered questions is on what will happen with intercollegiate sports.

Because the effort here is to reduce travel as much as possible, varsity sports present a particular problem.

Schneider said the conferences will first have to come up with their proposal before the state could weigh in. He said contact sports like football and basketball are particularly problematic.

While the “high water mark,” as Schneider put it, is for the state to welcome 56,000 students to Vermont colleges and universities this fall, he acknowledged that even the college presidents do not yet know how many students will actually show up.

He said some may show up only virtually.

Schneider said he would expect most upperclassmen would want to finish out their college career at the college they’ve called home, but freshmen or new incoming students and transfers may choose to stay closer to home or take a gap year.

This could also help as well as hurt Vermont. The state is traditionally an importer of college students, which on the one hand could be bad for enrollment, but on the other, Vermont has the fourth lowest COVID-19 case count in the nation and recently has had the lowest test positivity rate. So, Schneider suggested, maybe more students will want to come here instead of somewhere else. Plus, he said, their parents will want them to get out of the house, already.

Schneider also acknowledged that Vermont's colleges are integral to the state's economy and community.

The University of Vermont issued its return policy on Monday.

As for who is going to pay for all these new testing and health requirements, the plan calls for the colleges to pay for it, at least initially. Individuals who require more specific health needs would have to pay for that.

The state will reach out to the Legislature, which is on break until late August, to request funds from federal CARES Act funds to help defray at least some of this expense. Some of that money already has been earmarked for the state colleges.

There is more than $100 million of the $1.25 billion available. That money must be spent by the end of this calendar year. There will be a long line of requests for that money and the queue has already begun to form.

Safe and Healthy Return to Campus

Mandatory Guidance for College and University Campus Learning

Higher education institutions are an important component of Vermont’s economy, workforce development system, culture and vitality. The State of Vermont aims to make Vermont the safest place to go to college in the country during this public health emergency by establishing strict safety protocols that all institutions must follow. Administrators, faculty, staff and students must comply with this guidance to protect the health and safety of themselves and the communities that house these institutions.

This guidance is in addition to – not a substitute – for the existing Work Safe Guidance. In the event these two documents contradict one another, this document supersedes the Work Safe Guidance. These guidelines are aimed to minimize the likelihood of an outbreak, and strictly following these guidelines will reduce both the likelihood of an outbreak and the severity of an outbreak. Institutions must follow both sets of guidance and operate any campus facilities that fall under the Work Safe Guidance in accordance with that guidance (for example, a gym or retail operation must comply with the corresponding Work Safe Guidance).

The State recognizes each institution is unique. Therefore, each institution shall adopt a written restart plan and keep it on file at the institution available for inspection by any employee, student or State Agency upon request. These plans must, at a minimum, outline how they will comply with this guidance. This guidance serves as a minimum standard for safety. Institutions are encouraged to exceed these baseline recommendations.

This document was created in collaboration with the state’s colleges and universities, the Vermont Department of Health, the Vermont Department of Public Service, the Vermont Agency of Education and the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

1) Decrease risk of individuals infected with COVID-19 from entering the campus through effective public health prevention

a. Health Safety Contract:

All students, faculty and staff shall sign an institution specific health safety pledge that affirms the individual is familiar and willing to comply with the state’s COVID-19 restrictions and the institution’s health policies. Institutions shall enforce this contract, and immediately remove any student who violates major public safety components of the contract (such as quarantine requirements) from campus for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. Because of public health, existing judicial processes must err on the side of public health and remove a student from potentially further endangering the community by immediately removing the student from the campus. Faculty and staff who choose not to wear a face covering or follow existing public health safety standards shall face immediate disciplinary action.

b. Quarantine:

In order to protect the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and the community, all institutions must implement strict quarantine procedures for students returning to campus using one of the following health protocols:

HOME STATE: If traveling to Vermont in a private vehicle without making a prolonged stop (avoid gatherings such as restaurants, limit gas stops, if overnight travel is required – reduce social contacts), quarantine at home for 14 days immediately prior to traveling to Vermont (individuals may complete a shorter quarantine if they receive a negative COVID-19 test after day 7 and travel directly to Vermont without breaking the quarantine); OR

IN VERMONT AFTER MASS TRANSIT TO VERMONT: If traveling to Vermont with people from multiple households, via bus, rail or commercial airlines, individuals must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival to Vermont (after day 7 the individual may get a COVID-19 test and upon receiving a negative result, end their quarantine); OR

NON-QUARANTINE COUNTIES: Students traveling to Vermont from a non-quarantine county as identified by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development on August 1st, who travel in a private vehicle without making a prolonged stop, may arrive without completing a quarantine.

Institutions must verify that students who need to complete a quarantine in Vermont do so. Students may quarantine in one of the following locations:

• At a private residence in Vermont, including the student’s Vermont apartment; OR

• At a lodging property in Vermont including hotels and short-term rentals; OR

• In a college residence hall, under the following conditions:

o Campus-wide quarantine: Students required to quarantine are brought back 14 days earlier than non-quarantine students and the entire quarantine cohort quarantines on the campus together for 7 days through negative COVID-19 test results. Institutions must ensure strict social distancing between staff while the students are on campus quarantine. Students are confined to the campus but may leave their residence hall for meals and activities. They shall practice strict social distancing from other quarantining individuals; OR

o Residence hall quarantine: Students required to quarantine are isolated in the smallest groupings possible, and all services are provided to the students in their residence hall, including meals, learning, orientation, etc. The quarantine shall be 14 days or may end if a negative COVID-19 test result is received after day 7. The students have no interaction with individuals outside their quarantine cohort during the quarantine. Campuses may have more than one quarantine cohort on campus.

These quarantine policies will allow the Department of Health to work with colleges to implement isolation and quarantine policies for ill students and any individuals who have had close personal contact with those students.

For students who have a positive test on day 7, isolation procedures and contact tracing must be immediately initiated as in section 3.

c. Health Screenings:

All students must conduct a health screening prior to or upon campus arrival. This screening survey shall require an individual to verify that he or she has no symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chills, repeated shaking with chills, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, congestion or runny nose, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea). It is strongly recommended that a temperature check be conducted by the individual at home or a non-contact temperature check be conducted by the institution. Institutions may create systems that work best for their unique operations, including conducting the survey electronically or over the phone, but institutions must be able to demonstrate, if asked by employees or State health officials, how the system ensures employees have been pre-screened for symptoms before they enter the campus.

d. Register for Sara Alert:

Institutions shall ask students, faculty and staff to register with Sara Alert to get daily reminders via text, email or phone from the Vermont Department of Health to check for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 upon return to campus. Institutions may alternatively implement their own equivalent health screening tool in the place of Sara Alert.

e. Curtail Visitors:

Students may have two guests with them on move-in day. The guest must meet State of Vermont travel restrictions. Colleges should limit outside visitors and have no visitors to residence halls.

f. Testing:

The institutions shall ensure that all students (no matter where they come from) will undergo a COVID-19 testing protocol arranged for by the institution. This testing requirement does not eliminate the need for quarantine. The cost of the testing protocol will be the responsibility of the institution or individual. The State will consider the requirements of Section 19 of H. 965 in collaboratively working with the institutions to identify a mechanism to pay for the cost of testing.

i. All students from a quarantine county as identified by ACCD’s travel policy, or out-of-state students from any county who arrive in Vermont through mass transportation (commercial air travel, bus, train), must have a “zero day” test conducted within 48 hours of arrival at campus. Those receiving tests 48 hours before coming to campus must travel directly to campus in personal vehicle.

ii. All students (including Vermonters) must have a second test done at day 7.

This testing protocol is for both residential campuses and non-residential campuses.

g. Travel:

All institutional out-of-state travel by faculty, staff or students shall be suspended except with institutional leadership permission. Students should only travel to and from non-quarantine counties pursuant to the ACCD travel policy or plan to quarantine. Upon return from breaks, students, faculty and staff will follow ACCD travel quarantine policy, and will be required to complete the return to campus quarantine and testing protocol contained in this document.

h. Change Academic Schedule:

Institutions must modify their academic calendars to reduce the instances of students traveling outside of Vermont and returning to the campus. Some best practices include ending in-person learning before Thanksgiving; bringing students back to campus for second semester later than usual; eliminating short January terms; and eliminating spring break.

i. Reduce on-campus events:

Institutions shall reduce on-campus programming from outside speakers, presenters and community members, including reducing events that would encourage large crowds such as parents weekend and alumni weekend. All on campus events must comply with ACCD event guidance.

2) Decrease transmission of COVID-19 among staff and students once on campus through effective public health measures.

a. Face Coverings:

Face coverings shall be worn by all faculty, staff, students and visitors when in the presence of others and in public. A residence hall is not considered a public space. When outdoors, and more than six feet apart from one another, masks are not absolutely required, but discretion must be exercised, and masks should be carried on the person in the event circumstances warrant their use

b. Health Screenings:

All students, faculty and staff must complete a daily health screening prior to interacting with anyone on the campus, including going to class, going to a dining hall, or participating in any campus activity. This screening survey shall require an individual to verify that he or she has no symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chills, repeated shaking with chills, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, congestion or runny nose, sore throat, new loss of taste or smell, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea). It is strongly recommended that a temperature check be conducted by the individual at home or a non-contact temperature check be conducted by the institution. Institutions may create systems that work best for their unique operations, including conducting the survey electronically or over the phone – but the institution must be able to demonstrate, if asked by employees or state health officials, how the system ensures employees have been pre-screened for symptoms before they enter the campus.

c. Contact Tracing Journal:

Students, faculty and staff should consider keeping a contact journal – a list of other people who you have been in close contact with each day. If you do get sick, this would make it easier to get in touch with those people so they can take proper precautions to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

d. Hand Hygiene:

Students, faculty and staff must have easy and frequent access to soap and water or hand sanitizer. Handwashing or hand sanitization is required frequently.

e. Cleaning and Disinfecting:

All common spaces (when open to students, faculty and staff) and equipment, including bathrooms, frequently touched surfaces and doors, tools and equipment, and vehicles must be cleaned regularly and, when possible, prior to transfer from one person to another, in accordance with CDC guidance

f. Physical Distancing:

Students, faculty and staff must observe strict social distancing of 6 feet while on campus. Limit the occupancy of designated common areas, so that occupants maintain strict social distancing of no less than 6 feet per individual.

g. Dining Halls:

Institutions shall reduce the density of dining halls by establishing methods such as a meal “shift” system, creating regular tables to reduce interaction, and providing take-out service so students may eat in their rooms.

h. Classrooms:

Institutions must reduce density of classrooms to ensure at least 6 feet of social distancing between students (such as leaving seats empty between students). Students must have cloth face coverings on during classes. Institutions should consider an assigned seating policy to assist in the event of contact tracing.

i. Residence Hall Density:

Institutions should consider limiting shared living spaces to no more than 2 people per room. Common areas shall remain closed or restricted to a capacity that allows for physical distancing.

j. Athletics:

Institutions should consider how their athletic programs will need to be altered to comply with State guidance. Additional sports-specific guidance for college-level sports will be forthcoming.

k. Performing Arts:

Only performing arts (dance, singing, bands, etc.) that allow for social distancing should occur. Any performances shall comply with ACCD guidance on events.

l. Protect At Risk Faculty, Staff and Students:

Implement strategies and policies to address the needs of faculty, staff and students who have underlying health issues. These include options, where necessary, for remote instruction, special living situations, and course reassignment.

3) Quickly identify individuals with COVID-19 and put containment procedures in place to minimize the impact on students, staff and education

a. Adequate Health Services:

Ensure your institution’s health services is prepared with adequate personal protective equipment, access to testing capacity and a COVID coordination plan.

b. Isolation Procedures:

Institutions must have an isolation and quarantine plan in place in the event of a positive test and multiple exposures. This shall include having an arrangement in place to accommodate 5 percent of the college population in isolation and/or quarantine.

c. Campus Contingency Plans:

Institutions need to develop a procedure in the event the Department of Health determines there is an outbreak on campus, including considering for remote learning and quarantining portions or all of the campus.

d. Contact Tracing:

In the event of a positive case, the Vermont Department of Health will coordinate and conduct contact tracing.