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Northfield Residents Stay Calm As Four Norwich Students Test Positive For COVID-19

A white school building with blue sky
Anna Van Dine
Norwich University on Sunday, Aug, 16, during one of the military college's six move-in days that it spread out to accommodate COVID-19 safety measures.

Students in college towns around Vermont help keep local economies afloat, but this fall, they also bring the threat of COVID-19. 

While much of the state’s attention has been focused on the return of 12,000 University of Vermont students in Burlington, the smaller town of Northfield, population 6,200, has already started to welcome close to 2,000 students to Norwich University.

At the barber shop

Since he reopened at the end of May, Randy Peace has only allowed one customer at a time into his barber shop in downtown Northfield. While he snips and shaves, they sit in the single chair and look at a mirror ringed by military bumper stickers and Vermont memorabilia.

“I could spend three hours telling you every little thing in here that is meaningful to me,” he said. “There’s a lot of Northfield history in here, and Norwich University history in here.”

Barber chair and mirror
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
Randy Peace said business at his Northfield barber shop has been down 20-30% due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a glass case by the door, Peace has every book that’s been published about the history of the town. Norwich has long been part of that history; it's been there for more than 150 years. Today, faculty, staff, and students from Norwich make up about a third of Peace’s clientele. They get high and tights, flat tops, crewcuts.

“Norwich has their own barber shop on campus, there’s three full-time barbers there during the school year, but I still get some of the cadets that trickle down to me,” Peace said. “A lot of the cadets like to take part in the community. They come down and eat, get their hair cut, you know, go to the dollar store or the Rustic Restaurant for meals. It’s going to be a little different this year.”

On campus

That, of course, is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Normally, about 2,500 students take classes on-campus at Norwich, according to the university. Daphne Larkin, spokesperson for Norwich, told VPR that this year, the university is “operating at about 70% capacity, so we can give beds to 1,800 students. And then we’ll have a couple hundred commuters.”

More from Vermont Edition: What Will Fall Semester Look Like On Vermont College Campuses? It's Complicated.

The dorms are at reduced capacity, and students who stay on campus will only live in doubles and singles. Some classes will be online, even for those living at Norwich. Students are required to wear masks and keep social distance, and dining halls won’t have self-service. And students won’t be allowed to go into town.

“All of our campus-based students will be confined to campus, and can only leave with special permission,” Larkin said.

The main campus is about a mile away from Peace’s barber shop, and on Sunday afternoon, a batch of students trickled into the university grounds. Norwich wrestling and football coaches Alex Whitney and Bill Russell were directing cars.

Two men direct cars in a driveway
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
Norwich football and wrestling coaches Bill Russell and Alex Whitney asked each car that pulled into Norwich University Sunday: Here for arrivals?

One weekend earlier, on Aug. 8, the first 500 students arrived at the university. They were all deemed higher-risk, having either come from areas with high rates of coronavirus, or having traveled by plane or bus. Of those students, four tested positive in the first week.

Whitney, the wrestling coach, thinks that low number means students are taking it seriously.

“Hypothetically, it could have been 100, 200, 300 that had that,” he said. “And that definitely would have been a logistical, just, nightmare.”

Whitney and Russell expected to have ushered in about 300 students by the end of the day, most of them student leaders, like RAs. They drove onto the Norwich campus and got their first of many COVID tests. The plan is to test students upon arrival, a week later, and then periodically throughout the semester.

“We’re going to do the day zero, day seven, and then once we’re through that cycle, then we’re committed to 700 tests a week,” said university spokesperson Daphne Larkin. She also said students will do a daily health assessment and temperature check.

Shaylah King goes to Norwich, but she isn’t getting her COVID test till the end of the month. That’s because she’s among the last group of students to go back: the 22% of the student body that’s from Vermont.

A young woman wearing a mask
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
Norwich University student Shaylah King lives in Williamstown. She feels that commuting is safer than living in a dorm.

A resident of Williamstown, King commutes to class. She said she’s been hearing a bit of unease from people in the community.

“They’re just a little concerned about kids not taking responsibilities and following the rules, but I feel like once when we get in the swing of stuff it’ll be easier,” King said.

The day after the first group of students arrived at Norwich, WCAX reported that some were seen ignoring health guidelines. According to the university, the students were on the lawn at their own private residence in Northfield, and Norwich President Mark Anarumo has spoken with them.

Arrivals and some anxiety

Meanwhile, anxiety is mounting in other parts of the state. In Middlebury, residents published a letter in the Addison Independent last week urging the college to go entirely online. In Burlington, city council members say they’re concerned about UVM students returning to the area. Administrators from both schools have defended their plans.

In response to these concerns, Gov. Phil Scott is allowing towns and cities to set more stringent local rules limiting public gatherings as well as crowds in bars.

More from VPR: New COVID Emergency Order Allows Vermont Towns To Close Bars, Restrict Public Gatherings

“I'm giving our communities, especially the college towns, the ability to further limit some high contact activities as we increase the number of people in those areas,” he said at his press conference on Aug. 14.

State officials acknowledge that the return of college students will cause the COVID-19 infection rate to spike in Vermont — they just hope any outbreaks can be identified and contained quickly.

In a small town

Back in Northfield, Michelle Goodman was having a yard sale as students arrived at Norwich. Her house is pretty close to the campus: “I’d say probably less than 100 yards,” she said with a laugh.

Goodman isn’t worried about Norwich students spreading COVID-19.

“I mean it’s a lot smaller than say, UVM,” she said. “And I think it’s more compressed, it’s not spread out over a large area, so I think they can really contain things in their own little mini-community.”

A man stands next to a barber pole
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
VPR File
Randy Peace outside his barber shop on Depot Square in Northfield.

Randy Peace, the barber, also thinks that the COVID-19 situation in Northfield is OK. But he does have one big concern: His 16-year-old son, Garrett, has been battling leukemia on and off for seven years. He had a bone marrow transplant last December and came home from the hospital, with a severely suppressed immune system, at the beginning of the pandemic.

“There’s a young man that is still very compromised with his health,” Peace said. “So talk about being on pins and needles with all this going around, you know what I mean?”

Still, Peace has to make a living.

“You know, this pandemic is going to go on for a while obviously, and I think Norwich has a good plan in place to do it the right way, to bring them back the right way,” he said. “And if there is positive cases, which it sounds like there has been, they’ve been dealing with it the right way.”

Another group of students arrived at Norwich on Wednesday, Aug. 19. Three more waves will show up in the coming days, before classes begin on the 31st.

Correction 7:08 p.m. 8/19/2020: Norwich University moved to Northfield in 1866; it was not founded there.

Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.
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