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Despite Community Concerns, UVM Still Bringing Thousands Of Students To Burlington

A sidewalk leading into a green grassy area with a building in the background
Liam Elder-Connors
Part of the University of Vermont campus in Burlington. Nearly 12,000 students will return to the city for in-person classes this month.

The University of Vermont, plus state and city leaders, are expressing confidence that the school will be able to safely bring nearly 12,000 students back to campus and contain potential outbreaks of COVID-19.

The university committed in April to bringing students back for in-person classes and hasn’t wavered from that position. In the meantime, hundreds of other colleges around the country that made similar pledges have backtracked in light of the worsening pandemic.

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

On Monday, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill became the latest high-profile school to abruptly reverse its original plan to have on-campus classes. The switch came after more than 100 students tested positive for the coronavirus in the first week of classes.

The day after UNC’s announcement, University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella held a press conference in an attempt to quell growing concerns about UVM’s reopening plan.

“I think you will see more stories like the UNC story,” he said. “All of our planning was done so that we don’t have the same repeat here.”

A man in suit and tie at a podium.
Credit Screenshot / Zoom
UVM President Suresh Garimella at a press conference on Aug. 18.

Garimella said one important difference is that Vermont has less COVID-19 activity than North Carolinaand pretty much every other state.

UVM also has one of the most robust testing plansin the nation, according to Garimella. Students are required to get a COVID-19 test five days before coming to campus, again when they arrive and then weekly tests until Sept. 18, at which point the university will reassess its strategy.

Garimella says UVM is doing more than just testing a lot: classrooms have been adjusted to allow for physical distancing, in-person instruction will end before Thanksgiving and students will face sanctions for breaking public health rules — for example, hosting a party or refusing to wear a mask could bring a $250 fine for the first violation and suspension from school if it’s a second offense.

“We have no qualms about enforcing disciplinary action,” Garimella said.

UVM’s strategy has backing from the state’s top health officer. During a press conference on Tuesday, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said that the detection of several positive cases among college students returning to Vermont, including five at UVM, indicates that reopening strategies are working.

“We actually want to find these cases as the campus begins to regroup, so we know who needs to stay inside and away from other people, so we can prevent the virus from spreading any further,” Levine said.

"We have no qualms about enforcing disciplinary action." — UVM President Suresh Garimella

Despite those reassurances, there’s been a growing chorus of city residents, elected officials and some UVM faculty and students, who don’t think the university’s plan will keep the community safe.

UVM English professor Nancy Welch said the reopening plans set up students to fail.

“College is designed for intense social interactions and socialization,” she said. “It is unfair to put students in that situation and then turn around and say, 'We’re going to blame and sanction you if you break these rules.'"

More From VPR: State Unveils Rules For College Campus Reopenings This Fall

One particular area of concern comes from city residents who live in neighborhoods with high student populations. They’re worried about college kids throwing large parties — something that’salready happening, according to resident Maddy Posig, who spoke at a community meetinglast week.

“This has been one of the worst summers I’ve ever experienced here in Burlington,” she said. “There have been huge house parties … lots of drinking, no social distancing, no masks.”

Off-campus gatherings have already been the source of COVID outbreaks in other parts of the country. UVM has encouraged city residents toreport parties to the university, but Posig said that’s a lot to ask of people.

“It's almost like, 'Tattle on the students,' like it’s up to us to control their behavior,” she said. “I think that puts us in a very awkward position.”

"This has been one of the worst summers I've ever experienced here in Burlington. There have been huge house parties, lots of drinking, no social distancing, no masks." — Maddy Posig, Burlington resident

To that end, UVM has agreed to fund “education” patrols by the Burlington Police in those areas of the city. The officers will focus on outreach, but they’ll also be able to write tickets.

But even that proposal is controversial. Critics say given national and local efforts to overhaul policing, the city shouldn’t be deputizing cops to enforce public health rules.

Mayor Miro Weinberger says the city and UVM decided police were the best option.

“We have officers who are well-trained and experienced at performing comparable duties, they have conducted these types of circuits for more than eight years,” he said. “And … we couldn’t find an alternative that was better.”

Weinberger has generally supported UVM’s plan to bring students back to campus, and he says recent assurances, like the education patrols, have increased his confidence.

More From VPR: Unclear If Returning UVM Students Are Following Public Health Guidance

Still, Weinberger is being cautious. On Tuesday, he proposed restricting outdoor gatherings to 25 and capping indoor get-togethers at 10. Weinberger also wanted to impose a 10 p.m. call for bars and restaurants.

The city councilapproved that proposal on Thursday, though they opted to allow the sale of alcohol until 11 p.m.

Whether or not UVM’s plans will be enough to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks will be tested in the coming days and weeks.

Brandyn Falkofske is one of the thousands of students who came back. The third-year history and political science major says at first, he was excited to return. But as coronavirus cases around the U.S. have spiked this summer, Falkofske thinks UVM should have reconsidered.

“Even if it’s not happening in Vermont, it’s still like — I’m concerned,” he said. “I really do think now that UVM probably shouldn't have reopened.”

Falkosfske is living in Burlington, and he’ll go to classes on campus, though he’s already ready for that to change: “I'm not going to be surprised when UVM announces they're going online in like three weeks.”

"I'm not going to be surprised when UVM announces they're going online in like three weeks." — Brandyn Falkosfske, UVM student

When UVM would decide to pull the plug on in-person classes is unclear. Garimella, UVM’s President, has refused to offer specifics on what rates of infection on campus would trigger a reversal. Instead, when asked during Tuesday’s press conference, he expressed confidence in the college’s strategies.

“We’re spending so much more money, and so much more planning has gone into this, and a reliance on science,” he said. “You know as well as anyone, Liam, that there are areas in the country that are not following scientific advice.”

Garimella said UVM has “mechanisms in place” to make changes if the situation calls for it.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Liam Elder-Connors @lseconnors

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