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Dartmouth professors asking college to reconsider return to campus

  • Dartmouth College's Hanover, N.H., campus is seen from the air on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Charles Hatcher

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/21/2020 12:46:09 PM
Modified: 8/24/2020 9:54:10 PM

HANOVER — As universities across the country begin reversing their plans to bring students back to campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 150 Dartmouth College professors are asking their administration to follow suit.

“Evidence from other institutions and from our own experiences at Dartmouth convince us that we cannot maintain a safe campus and wider community with a large number of students arriving from all over the country, even with the extensive procedures and clear expectations as outlined in the College’s plans,” the professors wrote in an open letter which was signed and shared among faculty members at the college on Friday.

The letter, which was addressed to Dartmouth Provost Joseph Helble and President Philip Hanlon, comes just two days after Helble said in a community discussion that the college expects to continue with its reopening plan, but that college officials are waiting until next week to announce a return date as they monitor COVID-19 infection rates at other colleges and universities.

Other schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have moved all classes online after seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases in and around their campuses.

In the letter, Dartmouth faculty members wrote that bringing students back to campus and having in-person classes could be dangerous for professors, staff and students. They also said COVID cases potentially could spill over into the Upper Valley, outside of campus.

The letter follows months of speculation from community members, students and staff about how Dartmouth will resume in-person classes this fall.

In his announcement Wednesday, Helble said that the college has an “extensive” plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19 once the anticipated 2,300 students arrive on campus in September. Each student will receive a test packet in the mail before they arrive to campus, and will have to quarantine at home if they test positive. Once they arrive, they’ll be tested again several times within their first two weeks on campus.

Students will also be asked to sign a waiver agreeing to participate in testing, maintain six feet of social distancing, and not host visitors, among other restrictions. Failure to follow the rules will result in discipline and possible suspension, according to the waiver.

All students, faculty and staff will be required to complete an online health screening every day before entering any campus building.

In an interview on Friday, Dean of the College Kathryn Lively said enforcement will mostly come down to a “community effort” that’s similar to Dartmouth’s Bystander Initiative to prevent sexual harassment and assault. She said the school will encourage students, faculty and staff to either confront someone who is violating the rules surrounding COVID, or report the violation to the school. People who are wary of confrontation can download the school’s LiveSafe app to report violations, Lively said.

Additionally, campus security will be on the lookout for large gatherings or violations, and the college may look into additional patrolling during days and times when students tend to hold parties, she said.

“We’re hoping to create a culture of accountability,” she said, adding that she’s largely confident in the students’ ability to follow the rules.

“Dartmouth students really do care about each other. … It’s amazing how much the students want to be here,” she said.

The college’s plan has drawn limited support, but also wariness, from Hanover town officials, who have begun implementing extra safety precautions on the municipal level to prevent the spread of the virus, especially once more off-campus students return to live in Hanover.

Town Manager Julia Griffin said Hanover is hiring two temporary deputies to help the current town health officers respond to large gatherings and parties, and spread information about social distancing and COVID precautions.

Griffin is also working on an emergency rental housing ordinance, which would stipulate that all landlords must provide the town with the names and contact information for their tenants, and which would bar outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people. The ordinance will go before the Selectboard for a second public hearing on Aug. 31.

“I want this to be the great social experiment that works,” Griffin said Friday, but added, “It’s dependent on the complete commitment of an age group that’s not really instilling a lot of confidence right now.”

There’s a reason for her wariness; Griffin said Hanover police and health officers responded to parties throughout the summer that were hosted by students at off-campus housing. On some weekends that was been between six and 12 parties, she said, adding that officers will try to educate partiers and encourage them to disperse, rather than issue citations.

And while Griffin said she is concerned that Dartmouth students won’t follow safety precautions, she agreed with Helble that Dartmouth may be better suited for a successful return than other schools. That’s due to the Upper Valley’s relatively low rate of infection, the community agreement that students will sign, and — primarily — the school’s ability to test every student, Griffin said.

“Dartmouth has put together an extraordinarily well-supported, multiple testing plan,” Griffin said, adding that for larger schools, like the University of New Hampshire or UNC, the level of testing that Dartmouth can conduct would be “virtually impossible.”

Town Health Officer Michael Hinsley has similar concerns about student behavior but said he’s optimistic about the return, adding that he believes Helble, as an engineer, has helped craft a very comprehensive plan for reopening.

“The decisions are being made, not in a vacuum but bathed in an abundance of science,” Hinsley said, adding that he feels even more confident after the school tested nearly 750 graduate and professional students on campus over the summer and found no positive cases.

The onus, according to Griffin and Hinsley, is now on the students to follow safety guidelines. And Dartmouth senior Hannah Lang said she’s confident her fellow classmates are up to the task.

Lang and several peers put together a study in June, looking at student responses to returning to campus, following safety guidelines and undergoing regular testing. She said that after conducting the study, she doesn’t believe a COVID outbreak is inevitable like it may be at other schools.

Part of that is due to the relatively small size of Dartmouth’s student body — especially compared to larger Ivy Leagues and state schools — which means students have traditionally held small parties and gatherings, rather than large events. Dartmouth is allowing back 2,300 students in the fall semester, a little over half of its 4,400 undergraduates.

But an even larger reason she’s confident is that Dartmouth students have a love for their community, Lang said.

“I think that one major difference about Dartmouth versus other schools is the extreme sense of place that students feel about Dartmouth,” Lang said Thursday, “We really value the Upper Valley community — that’s maybe been a little bit lost — but students have a really major stake in making this work.”

But the professors who signed the letter had a different view of the risks and benefits.

“We do not see rewards that would outweigh the ponderous risks in this plan,” they wrote. “A highly restricted residential experience, if executed safely, will not resemble our typical, vibrant learning community, and will introduce significant challenges for student learning, including but not limited to the strain of isolation, the threat or reality of illness, and collateral stressors on mental, intellectual, and emotional health.”

Among those who signed the letter is Carolyn Dever, an English professor who served as Dartmouth’s provost from 2014 to 2017.

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

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