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Dartmouth sticks with plan for students to return to campus

  • The Baker-Berry Library stands across The Green at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/26/2020 2:41:51 PM
Modified: 8/27/2020 10:18:34 PM

HANOVER — Dartmouth College on Wednesday said it is sticking with its plan to bring about half of its undergraduates back to campus for the fall semester, following weeks of speculation and debate over whether the school would — or should — reopen classrooms and dormitories amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A number of schools, particularly in New England, have opened using strategies and tactics similar to ours and have not experienced significant outbreaks. Our plan is science-based and data-driven and it leverages our rural setting and comparatively low population,” Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon and Provost Joseph Helble wrote in an email to students and faculty.

The 2,300 undergraduate students — about half of the 4,400-student body — will return to campus starting Sept. 8 and must follow safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including wearing a mask on campus and not hosting large gatherings or visitors. They also must abide by an initial quarantine upon arrival in Hanover.

Students will also have to sign a waiver agreeing to those precautions or risk suspension. All students will also be subject to testing before they arrive on campus and three times within their first week back at school, as well as to random tests throughout the semester.

Students have the option of taking classes remotely, and Dartmouth left open the possibility it could reverse course if a major outbreak occurs in Hanover. If 1% of students test positive for the virus in any given week, the school will review its “in-person operational status,” the announcement said. Students who test positive will be required to quarantine on campus, and Dartmouth has set aside nine buildings with more than 500 rooms for quarantine and isolation, according to college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence.

Although students are returning, the majority of classes being taught will remain online, she said.

Back in March, the school canceled in-person classes for the spring term, and later for the summer term, to prevent the spread of the virus. Dartmouth said eight people either taking classes or working on campus have tested positive for COVID-19 to date, but no cases have been identified on campus since April.

Dartmouth also said more than 1,000 graduate and professional students have undergone COVID-19 testing, with none of the results coming back positive.

Last week, in a virtual address of the college community, Helble announced a delay in releasing a return date and room assignments until this week. He said officials wanted to continue to monitor other schools — including members of the Ivy League, the University of Notre Dame, Duke University and Amherst College — to see if their rates of COVID-19 infections rise.

The University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Columbia University were just some of the major institutions that decided earlier this month to hold all-remote or mostly remote classes this fall, after seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases across the country and near their campuses.

Others, including Cornell University, Brown University and Amherst, are still reopening, but with strict safety precautions in place.

Helble’s announcement stirred some controversy; a group of professors wrote an open letter Friday, which has since been signed by more than 180 members of the faculty, urging the school not to reopen campus. In the letter, professors wrote that a reopening would put faculty, staff, students and the Upper Valley community at risk. They also worried that students wouldn’t follow safety rules regarding COVID-19, which include mask requirements and a restriction against large gatherings.

But students and parents responded to that letter in their own, separate letters, saying the school should continue with its reopening plan. In their letters, parents and students argued that a reopening would benefit students’ mental health, as well as boost the local economy.

Jeff Sharlet, an associate professor of English who signed the letter from faculty, said he was “disappointed” following the college’s announcement Wednesday. Sharlet, who has underlying health conditions, said the decision to bring students back fails to acknowledge the psychologically difficult position elderly people and people with underlying conditions face amid the pandemic.

He also wondered how bans on large gatherings like parties would be enforced, when Hanover officials have said that students living off-campus have hosted multiple parties throughout the summer.

“The idea that we must go on as close to normal as possible seems to me to be in defiance of the horrifically abnormal state of national mourning that we should be in,” Sharlet said.

He added, “This is a teachable moment. What are we teaching our students by telling them to carry on?”

Dartmouth seemed to anticipate such criticism.

In their email, Hanlon and Helble wrote, “One thing is clear from our conversations with you and from our peers’ experiences: No decision at this time, during the pandemic, will satisfy everyone. ... We have, however, made the decision that we think honors our mission while implementing safeguards for the protection of our community.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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