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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Unclear If Returning UVM Students Are Following Public Health Guidance

People on a sandy beach in front of water.
Liam Elder-Connors
North Beach in Burlington on Friday, June 19. Normally hundreds of UVM students return to the city in June, but it's unclear how many have this year, and if they're following public health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Normally, hundreds of college students return to Burlington to start off-campus leases at the beginning of June. This year, that’s raised concerns that the influx of out-of-state students could bring COVID-19.

About three weeks into June, only two returning University of Vermont students have tested positive for the virus. But it’s unclear how many students returned to the city, and if they’re following public health requirements.

On a recent Friday, North Beach in Burlington swarmed with people looking to cool off by Lake Champlain.

The beach is right off the bike path and just a quick ride from the city’s downtown, making it a popular spot. On this afternoon, there are some families playing in the water, and then a lot of college students lounging in tightly-packed groups on the sand, no protective face masks in sight.

This reporter counted at least four different groups of people, presumably students, with folding tables in the shallow lake water playing beer pong. One group that’s playing pong confirmed that they were UVM students, but quickly said they didn't want to talk to a reporter.

Over in the parking lot, though, recent UVM graduate Connor Cronin is willing to chat.

Cronin, who’s now working on his master’s degree at UVM, said he doesn’t think students are taking public health guidelines seriously.

“I mean, I live on a party street,” he said. “And it seems like everybody is just partying, and of course you see the big frat groups, and there’s no seriousness over there.”

A man with an open patterned shirt next to a float.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Connor Cronin, a recent UVM grad and now master's student, said he doesn't think his peers are taking public health guidance seriously.

UVM, which has almost 8,000 out-of-state students, announced in late April that it would hold in-person classes in the fall. The university, like many colleges, faces severe budget shortfalls due to the pandemic, and tuition, particularly from out-of-state students, accounts for 40% of UVM’s revenue.

President Suresh Garimella assured the community this spring that the university would develop plans to keep students and the community safe.

“We will continue to prepare for an in-person campus in a way that is responsible and informed by the best science and by our public health experts,” he said in a video announcement.

But Burlington didn't have to wait until the fall to get a preview of what students' return might feel like. And the early returns are worrying some people, including UVM students.

As usually happens in June, hundreds of students moved into off campus apartments in Burlington, many coming directly from home states with much higher rates of COVID-19 than Vermont.

Students were told to follow strict guidelines, including quarantining for two weeks. But no one can say whether that happened.

“There’s no way that they really force it upon us,” said Carly Soler, a UVM senior.

"There's no way that they really force it upon us." — Carly Soler, UVM senior

Soler and her friend Abby Selig were headed down to North Beach. Selig hasn’t left Vermont since the pandemic started, but Soler went home to New Jersey. She said she quarantined when she came back.

“But again, there’s no way that they can really tell if we actually did quarantine or not,” Soler said.

UVM officials set up pop up sites where they could test between 1,500 and 2,000 students returning this month. But about three weeks into June, only 371 people have been tested.

“I think of course we’d want more, but our estimations could be off,” said Annie Stevens, UVM’s Vice Provost for Student Affairs.

Stevens said students might be waiting longer before moving back to Burlington, so she’s not concerned about seemingly low testing numbers.

“I look at it as, every test counts, and every student who is helping us understand where the pandemic or the virus may be and may not be, is helpful information,” she said.

A pilot “supportive quarantine” program run by the city of Burlington to prevent the spread of the disease also had lower-than-expected participation.

A graphic titled box it in.
Credit City of Burlington, Courtesy
The 'Box It In' strategy promoted by the city of Burlington's 'supportive quarantine' pilot program.

Students could sign up, and a city staffer would check in with them every day of their two week quarantine. People also get a "welcome kit" that includes things like hand sanitizer and a library card.

Only 190 people signed up, according to Zach Williamson, the city staffer in charge of the program.

He said initially the city was expecting more, but they heard from landlords that rentals weren’t filling up.

“People understandably were thinking this would be a normal June turnover in terms of student housing,” he said. “But of course it’s not a normal June and so … as far as we can tell, not nearly as many people from out of state moved to Burlington in this timeframe.”

While UVM, Middlebury and other Vermont colleges have decided to hold in-person classes this fall, other colleges around the country are acting more cautiously. Some are not holding in-person classes at all this autumn.

UMass Boston and the California State Schools system will be completely remote. Dartmouth College is still finalizing plans, but is mulling a mix of in-person and remote learning.

While Vermont still has relatively low rates of new infections, officials this week said there’s increasing spread among young adults in their 20s and 30s.

"If we know of certain students or get reports of certain students that just continuously and blatantly disrespect the ordinances, we'll certainly have even clearer expectations for those students and possible sanctions." — Annie Stevens, UVM Vice Provost for Student Affairs

Data from the Burlington Police Department indicate that there might be more community concern about students’ behavior since their return. From June 1 to 18, the department received 75 noise complaints and issued 6 tickets, including four for party noise.

In the same time frame last year, police only got 52 complaints and issued no tickets.

Stevens, the UVM vice provost, said the university is developing a pledge for students to sign saying that they’ll follow public health guidelines.

“If we know of certain students or get reports of certain students that just continuously and blatantly disrespect the ordinances, we’ll certainly have even clearer expectations for those students and possible sanctions,” she said.

In the fall, when up to 10,000 students could resume classes, UVM says it will have widespread testing available, and will require students to wear facial coverings on campus.

But Burlington City Councilor Jack Hanson says he thinks the university should be more proactive and should test all returning students.

“It seemed to be a pretty low number of students that received the testing [in June], so you know, it’s not just UVM, it’s us too — it’s the whole community,” Hanson said. “The more that we can get people in for this testing, the better.”

Cronin, the recent UVM grad, said he adheres to the public health guidelines, and he hopes his peers will start doing the same.

“Now’s the time to really buckle down and mask and proper sanitation and social distancing,” he said. “I think UVM students need to take it upon themselves to do that.”

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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