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Editorial: Dartmouth’s reopening plan threatens Upper Valley’s calm amid the coronavirus

Published: 8/21/2020 10:38:17 PM
Modified: 8/21/2020 10:45:16 PM

Perhaps Dartmouth College is incapable of surviving without the Class of 2024 and its millions of dollars in tuition, room and board. Why else would the college reopen campus next month in the midst of a pandemic, endangering the Upper Valley, thus far an oasis from the novel coronavirus?

Is it to offer a couple of thousand 18- to 25-year-olds a couple of months of on-campus living, while they take mostly online classes that they could have accessed from home and are banned from gathering in groups and attending parties that define the campus experience?

More confounding, why would Dartmouth do this while its peers stumble through reports of coronavirus clusters, student misbehavior and reopening rollbacks?

The math doesn’t add up, especially not for residents of the Upper Valley.

Together we’ve so far been spared the worst of COVID-19. We’ve endured remote schooling, a summer of empty swimming pools and five months of social distancing — and it has worked. In an unsettling time, it’s been reassuring to see coronavirus cases in the Twin States remain remarkably low, even as national virus maps grow an ever-angrier shade of red.

This success can’t be taken for granted. When the weather turns cold and we close the windows and retreat indoors, experts expect cases to rise. How high? Nobody knows. But Dartmouth appears ready to gamble, making an unwise bet that college kids will follow the rules.

Dartmouth says it’s relying on data to make its decisions. Officials suggest that testing might show a positivity rate of up to 0.28% when students first return, which the college bases on its calculations for schools with similar testing protocols to those planned at Dartmouth, including pre-arrival and on-arrival tests. That could mean six positive cases out of about 2,300 returning students (about half the student body), who Dartmouth expects would be caught in the net of its 14-day on-arrival quarantine.

But focusing on lifeless numbers ignores a key variable with which Upper Valley residents are familiar: student behavior. Outbreaks are possible throughout the fall.

At the vanguard of the Swiss cheese protocols designed to keep students in line — and six feet apart — is a responsibility oath, followed by the threat of getting sent home.

Given the conduct of Dartmouth students who have remained in off-campus housing this summer — reported by Hanover officials, described in letters to the Forum and observed at popular gathering spots — consider us skeptical.

Exiling students who break the rules sounds good on paper, but we can’t expect college officials to monitor more than 2,000 students all at once, especially since they’ve offered few details on enforcement. We have seen how easily the virus spreads in the moments in between.

Besides, banishing a single student, or all of them, will mean little to the Upper Valley if an outbreak strays off campus.

Other colleges are re-evaluating their decisions for the fall term. Earlier this month, Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, both Ivy League schools, delayed bringing students back to campus this fall. Notre Dame, after forging ahead with its reopening plans, kicked all classes back online temporarily after finding 222 positive cases in the semester’s first two weeks. North Carolina’s flagship university canceled in-person classes just one week into its failed experiment.

Dartmouth brushes off these incidents as apples-to-oranges comparisons that provoke unfounded anxieties, even as it studies them in search of lessons. Here’s one lesson: Students are reportedly ignoring conduct codes near and far, from Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., to Duke. College kids want the full campus experience, and we don’t expect Dartmouth students to be any different.

The students who return next month are scheduled to be in Hanover fewer than 10 weeks. They’ll take exams from home and the college will take its normal break from Thanksgiving until after New Year’s. A different cohort of students is scheduled to arrive in Hanover in January for a new round of in-person classes, but administrators aren’t making any promises.

Perhaps that’s because they’ve heard the grave predictions issued by public health professionals about the impact of the virus this winter, and perhaps they understand that it would be irresponsible to risk having all those people traveling to the Upper Valley in January with the virus spiking.

There’s no need to wait until spring: The virus is rampant in much of the country, and has proven difficult to control. We understand the need to bring back disadvantaged students who need the support and amenities provided on campus, but beyond that, we remain unconvinced. Now is the time for Dartmouth officials to reconsider their dangerous gamble.

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