How Vermont colleges teamed up for COVID success

Positivity in early October was .05% on the state's campuses, which have welcomed about 40,000 students back

The COVID infection rate at Vermont’s colleges and universities remains staggeringly low because, state higher ed leaders say, the 13 institutions worked together to develop a comprehensive plan to control the virus.

As of Oct. 6, that rate was .05% for the state’s campuses, which have welcomed about 40,000 students back.

That figure that has reassured local residents who at the beginning of the semester feared an influx of students bringing COVID from hotspots across the country, University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella tells University Business.

“An important reason for our strong performance is good statewide leadership,” Garimella says. “There’s a great reliance on science and great respect for medical and public health experts.”

Garimella also credited students with behaving responsibility before arriving and throughout the semester.

The university paid for students to get pre-arrival testing, which found less than 10 infections.

All students and staff agreed to participate in safety training, and everyone on campus is wearing masks consistently and social distancing. Visitors remain prohibited from students’ dorm rooms.

“The students really want to be here, they didn’t want to be the reason we shut down,” he says.

The University of Vermont has been “overtesting,” conducting about 10,000 tests a week with a consistent positivity rate of just .01% to .02%, Garimella says.

All on-campus and off-campus students, both undergraduate and graduate, are tested for free once a week in the same location where the university is now offering flu shots.

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Overall, the university expects to spend about $40M on COVID prevention efforts, even as its revenues have dropped by more than $25 million, Garimella says.

How Vermont higher ed made its COVID plan

Rich Schneider, the recently retired president of Norwich University, was recruited this spring by Vermont Gov. Phil Scott to lead the state’s higher ed administrators in developing a comprehensive reopening plan for fall 2020.

The three components of the plan, which carries the force law:

  • Bringing students back safely
  • Keeping them safe on campus
  • quickly identifying and treating any students who get infected

“We have an aging population and most Vermonters were svcraed to death about bringing college kids back from hotspots all over America,” Schneider says.

The plan requires students from a COVID hotspot—any U.S. county with a higher COVID rate than Vermont—to return to campus two weeks early to quarantine.

Students who arrived by commercial transportation and who traveled to campus with someone other than their immediate family also had to quarantine.

All students, including those from Vermont, are tested before or as soon as they arrive, and then again seven days later. The state has also established comprehensive contract tracing to contain any potential outbreaks.

“Tests are very important but tests are not prevention,” Schneider says. “Tests are evidence that you have done a good job with prevention.”

The state guidelines also allow students to be disciplined for not following the safety rules. About 50 students have been sent home statewide for safety violations, Schneider says.

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“I think our Vermont students are more compliant about face masks and doing the right thing than most of the general population,” Schneider says. “I’m very proud of them they’re taking it seriously,

Schneider does have concerns about Vermont’s potential harsh winters forcing students inside and into closer quarters where the virus is more liable to spread.

“Students are going to want to hang out in dining halls and indoors to see friends,” he says. “We will have to be more vigilant. This takes hard work, it’s not luck.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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