Dartmouth presses on lifting COVID restrictions as case count surges over 500

  • Dartmouth students Sophia Gawel, left, and Jack Walker, both members of the class of 2022, eat lunch outdoors to avoid the crowd at Collis Café, which reopened for indoor dining on Monday, in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. Both students said they are frustrated by the college’s poor communication about updated COVID-19 policies. Walker recently attended a student meeting outdoors after the group was kicked out of a meeting space by a staff member despite being able to reserve it ahead of time. “You don’t want to argue with a staff member who is worried about an outbreak,” he said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Students walk across the Dartmouth Green between classes in Hanover, N.H., on Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. Dartmouth reopened in person for its winter term on January 4, despite an ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writers
Published: 1/13/2022 6:04:00 AM
Modified: 1/13/2022 6:03:09 AM

HANOVER — When Dartmouth College brought students back to campus earlier this month, the institution was an outlier among its Ivy League peers, many of which chose to start the semester remotely.

Dartmouth approach has yielded 544 active cases across students, faculty and staff as of Tuesday, and as the college continues to lift restrictions on student gathering, some members of the campus community remain wary of the college’s decision.

“Like everybody, we’re sick of it,” said Chris Peck, the president of SEIU Local 560, Dartmouth’s staff union. “But it’s a little nerve-wracking. We’re all nervous.”

Staff would have benefited from another week to prepare for the new academic term amid the omicron surge, he said. Custodians were still doing health and safety training to prepare for the omicron variant as students arrived back on campus.

Dartmouth’s decision sets it apart from peer institutions including Harvard, Yale and Cornell, which moved the first weeks of the term online. Others, including the University of Vermont and Vermont Technical College, have not delayed in-person instruction, with classes resuming next week.

Interim Provost David Kotz and Executive Vice President Rick Mills emphasized that experts “observe that we are moving from pandemic to endemic status” in an email to the Dartmouth community Wednesday. They said a shift in public health guidelines makes it easier for people who are vaccinated and boosted to “resume normal activities while taking precautionary measures.”

“The isolation, anxiety and grief associated with the pandemic” amid a national mental health crisis also drove the college’s decision to prioritize in-person classes and campus activities, they said. After at least two student deaths by suicide last year, Dartmouth enhanced its mental health services.

Dartmouth’s student vaccination rate exceeds 98%, and the college requires a booster shot by Jan. 31. It will continue testing vaccinated students weekly and requiring masks indoors, and it is providing medical-grade masks with test kits. Students put in isolation will need a negative antigen test to leave after five days.

The measures aren’t enough to alleviate some students’ concerns about the administration’s plan.

“A lot of the graduate students are stressed and sad that the course of action that the Dartmouth administration is taking — that if everyone gets omicron, then we’ll be safe after omicron,” said Keighley Rockcliffe, a fourth-year doctoral student who leads the Dartmouth Graduate Student Council. “To me, this is really neglectful of the immunocompromised students, and to extremely cautious students who don’t know how their body would react, or students with an exemption to the vaccine.”

She said she lobbied the administration to make hybrid and remote options readily available, but without success so far.

Off-campus impact

Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin is generally supportive of the college’s approach. She said Hanover has a high vaccination and booster rate (just under 72% fully vaccinated, according to New Hampshire’s online COVID-19 information dashboard), in addition to a mask ordinance that was re-established in early August after a brief hiatus.

Town residents, so far, seem to be less bothered by the college’s policies, unlike the 2020-21 school year, when people were worried about students contributing to the virus’ spread in the community.

“What a difference a year makes in terms of a community’s comfort level,” Griffin said in a phone interview. “I’m not dealing with anywhere near the amount of anxiety we dealt with this time last year before people were vaccinated and boosted. I think by and large they feel we’ve done all we possibly can here besides a total lockdown. And folks aren’t willing to do that.”

Griffin has been watching as the number of cases rise at Dartmouth and hopes the spike levels off soon.

Jack Walker, a Dartmouth senior, said he was happy to be back on campus.

“Based on our geography — not being around major cities and being somewhat remote — it gives it a different feeling. They understand that the students want to be as much in-person as possible,” he said.

And more students are adhering to the mask mandate than last term, he observed.

But the college’s messaging hasn’t always been as clear as in past terms, he added.

“The communication to students is not evolving very quickly. It’s difficult for some student organizations to understand what the college is policing, not policing; requiring, not requiring,” he said.

The return of students to campus as scheduled has been welcomed by the business community, who suffered when classes went remote, said Tracy Hutchins, executive director of the Upper Valley Business Alliance. She lauded the public health policies put in place by the town and college.

“From the business community, everyone wants to be cautious, but certainly having Dartmouth operate as close to normal as possible is huge help for them to keeping their businesses open and afloat,” Hutchins said in a phone interview. “It’s been such a difficult haul for the businesses, just everything they’ve been (through) in the last two years, and the sands continue to shift. I think we’re all in that place that we have to learn how to manage the situation as best we can.”

In many ways, the college’s approach reflects a shift in how the general public is approaching COVID, said Alice Ely, executive director of the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley.

This time last year, many people were living in lockdown mode as they waited for vaccines, which in some ways they thought would bring an end to the pandemic. That turned out to not be the case, as vaccination rates started to lag, variants emerged and breakthrough cases were reported.

“I think people are still in the mode of making a mental transition from, ‘I thought I was going to be completely free’ to ‘No I need to figure out where I’m going to be in terms of my risk profile,’ ” Ely said. “I think people are starting to mentally shift to the place of, ‘This is not going to go away forever.’ We’re still going to have to live with this in some way and how is it going to be like seasonal flu? How is it going to be like other things we’ve just gotten used to?”

A year ago, Ely said, she did not know anyone who had personally gotten sick from COVID-19. That’s changed in the last three weeks.

“All of a sudden it’s definitely more around us,” she said. “It’s not lurking in the corner. It’s there.”

Life on campus

Dartmouth is rolling back its restrictions on student life as the term progresses. As of Monday, students will be allowed to eat in shared spaces, although social gatherings are still prohibited.

And unlike previous quarters, students are isolating in their dormitories rather than in separate housing, which “causes some anxiety for the custodians,” said Peck, the staff’s union president.

For staff in dormitories or dining halls, that means “you have to just assume everybody is sick,” he said.

Staff who work in close proximity with COVID-19-positive students are paid time-and-a-half. But they are nervous for their health.

Peck is glad that Dartmouth opened spaces for students to eat in person on Monday. When students first returned to campus, they picked up grab-and-go meals and were expected to eat in the rooms, but custodians often found them gathered on benches or window sills to socialize.

“Now (the students) have a certain area to go. They’re not all through the building in different areas. And so it’s easier to control it,” he said.

Some students do not comply with the mask mandate, putting staff at risk.

“It almost seems like a lack of respect for our members (for) them to not wear a mask around an older, unhealthier population,” he said. “It’s probably a small group. But it’s surprising.”

On Jan. 3, the Dartmouth College AAUP Chapter, the faculty union, also criticized the administration’s approach.

Members wrote that they are concerned that the college’s policy “will needlessly endanger hundreds of medically vulnerable members of the Dartmouth and Upper Valley communities for whom even a breakthrough case of COVID could be dangerous and — for some — deadly.”

They called for the college to more strictly enforce its indoor mask policy; to test students daily or at least more regularly; and to support remote classes for the first week or two of the winter quarter.

And under Dartmouth’s current rules, faculty with medical conditions that put them at risk can seek a dispensation to teach remotely. Otherwise, faculty have to seek permission from deans to avoid in-person classes, which the letter called a “practice clearly designed to chill the participation of untenured and contingent faculty and thus their access to reasonable safety remedies.”

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