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Dartmouth administrators look back on college’s COVID-19 task force, set to end by August

  • Lisa Adams (Dartmouth College photograph)

  • Josh Keniston. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck—Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

  • A painting of a student studying indoors is on display in the closed Hopkins Center entryway at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., on March 1, 2021. According to the college's COVID-19 dashboard, on Monday there are 122 active cases amongst students, with 120 in isolation. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/10/2021 9:40:18 PM
Modified: 7/10/2021 9:40:18 PM

HANOVER — On March 2, 2020, a group of administrators at Dartmouth College got together to sort out how to bring home members of the college community who were traveling abroad as the virus that causes COVID-19 spread.

Josh Keniston, the college’s vice president of campus services and institutional projects, said he thought at the time that the team would “work on this for the next few weeks as we get everyone home safe.”

But what began as a short-term project soon extended into a more than 16-month endeavor to establish public health guidelines for campus operations.

As co-chairs of the college’s COVID-19 task force, which is set to disband at the end of the month, Keniston and Dr. Lisa Adams, a professor of medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine, became the faces associated with the school’s restrictions. Their decisions — ranging from testing protocols to limits on gathering size, to mask-wearing and vaccination procedures — at times inspired blowback from students and others.

The task force’s work at times felt like it was 24/7, Adams said.

The stress of the work even had physical repercussions, she said. She had outpatient surgery on a ruptured disk in her back in mid-March 2020, a few days after the college decided not to bring students back to campus after spring break that year. The day of her surgery, Adams went in at 6 a.m. and was back on COVID-19-related calls later that afternoon.

“It was fairly all-consuming,” she said.

Keniston remembered that decision to send students home for an indeterminate period of time as they left for spring break in 2020 as a “milestone.”

“I think we all realized we’re in for a ride,” he said.

That decision left some, especially international students, scrambling to sort out living accommodations.

Similarly, Keniston recalled the decision to bring a limited number of students back to campus last fall as a significant one, requiring that the college devise strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including testing, and creating space for quarantine and isolation.

“We felt strongly for some of our students being on campus (is) as safe (or) safer than being home,” he said.

That decision drew concern from some of the college’s neighbors, who worried that the students might increase the rates of infection in the region.

“Some people wanted us to take a bigger leap sometimes” while others wanted the college to take a “smaller leap,” Keniston said.

The task force, which included roughly 20 people from across the college and pulled in others as necessary, worked with the best information it had at the time, he said. Still, there were occasions when even Keniston himself found the college’s COVID-19 protocols irritating.

Specifically, Keniston said, he found the frequency of the college’s COVID-19 testing “annoying” because working from home he sometimes had only interacted with his husband but still was required get a test.

Adams, who described herself as a “lover of data,” said there were times she felt frustrated that they had to make decisions with incomplete information.

“Almost every decision was difficult,” she said.

Things got especially tense in February of this year when the college had an outbreak of COVID-19 cases. Adams recalled a meeting during which she learned the number of cases on campus had ticked up from 20 to nearly 30.

She felt like she was “in the situation room while it’s happening in real time,” she said. It “was very disconcerting.”

The college dealt with the outbreak, which eventually reached about 150 cases, by further restricting in-person activities, closing indoor gathering spaces, halting in-person classes and shifting dining options to grab-and-go only. Within a few weeks, the college was able to bring the case numbers down again and it avoided an outbreak among employees or the wider Hanover community, she said.

“I felt like we were doing all the right things,” Adams said.

When she heard from members of the Dartmouth community that they didn’t like the choices that the task force was making, Adams said her approach was to invite them to participate.

“I want to hear about your concerns in a constructive form,” she said. She called it an “Abraham Lincoln Team of Rivals approach.”

Even as the COVID-19 task force is disbanding by Aug. 1, Adams said she and other members of the “core group,” as well as the health and epidemiology working group and travel working group, will continue to meet as the pandemic continues, the highly infectious delta variant persists and the potential for a seasonal surge in cases remains.

“It doesn’t mean that the pandemic is over and we’re done,” Keniston said of the committee's end.

Instead, it means that the college is prepared to manage the challenges that come up through a more routine decision-making structure. With the disbanding of the task force, the offices of the provost and the executive vice president will make decisions relating to campuswide restrictions and operations, which are expected to return to normal by late August, according to a news release the college issued last week.

Things are generally looking positive for a return this fall. As of Friday, about 90% of students and employees on campus and nearly 80% of the entire Dartmouth community have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The college is requiring COVID-19 vaccines for both students and employees, with exemptions for religious and medical reasons.

Both Keniston and Adams acknowledged the mental health toll that the pandemic has had on Dartmouth, which saw four student deaths including at least two to suicides last academic year.

“When faced with tragic loss like that, there’s no good feeling,” Adams said.

But they were hopeful that reconnecting in person this fall as the college resumes normal operations, albeit still with some testing requirements in place, will help Dartmouth regain a sense of community.

“Humans are social beings,” Keniston said. “A lot of us felt lost from the lack of human connections. Part of what’s encouraging about where we are (is the) ability to reconvene and get those connections.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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