With the week of February 21 coming to a close, all 11 NESCAC schools have now welcomed students back to their campuses for the start of the spring semester. While Colby brought students back to start their January term on January 8, most NESCAC schools made significant adjustments to their academic calendar in order to delay the start of their spring semester until early or mid February. Last weekend, Middlebury became the final NESCAC to open its doors, allowing students to move into on-campus residences on February 21 and February 22.
Of the 11 schools, Bowdoin is the only one that is currently reporting zero positive student cases. Williams, which maintains an aggregated total of positive test results in the past seven days on its COVID-19 dashboard, has had two positive test results in the last seven days between students, faculty and staff, but it is unclear whether these are student cases.
The remaining NESCACs have between one and 11 active student cases, with the exception of Middlebury—where students have been on campus for a week—which has five, and Tufts, which currently has hundreds of positive cases but publishes aggregated totals of undergraduate and graduate student testing data and is too large to be comparable with other NESCACs for the purposes of COVID-19 data.
Other than Tufts, all but one of the remaining NESCACs have had fewer than 20 student cases since January 1. Colby has had 48 positive student cases since students returned to campus for January Term on January 8-9 and then for the start of the spring semester on February 8-9. On January 17, Colby’s Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae released a campus update addressing the uptick in cases, noting that infections seemed to be stemming from students leaving masks off after finishing a meal indoors and gathering indoors without wearing masks or observing social distancing protocols. Due to the outbreak, Colby suspended indoor dining and switched to grab-and-go meals, and students could no longer enter other residence halls or gather in common rooms.
Currently, with only two active COVID-19 cases, Colby’s campus status level is back to yellow, which means students can again eat in dining halls with limited seating capacity.
With all students invited back to campus, though, Colby’s plan for the semester differed markedly from Bowdoin’s. Both Bowdoin and Amherst are operating at reduced capacity, with Amherst having invited seniors, juniors, first years, transfer students and sophomores whose home circumstances are not conducive to learning to live on campus in the spring, totaling around 1,200 students. Amherst had first years, transfer students, sophomores, seniors who graduated in December and seniors who studied abroad for one or both semesters of the 2019-20 academic year on campus in the fall.
All other NESCACs allowed students of all class years to return to campus, although all are offering a mix of in-person, hybrid and remote classes that make it possible for students to study remotely if they chose to do so.
At Hamilton, though, first-year students who had deferred in the fall were required to come to campus in the spring unless they “can’t or shouldn’t travel to campus”—in which case they would have to petition to study remotely—or have extenuating circumstances, in which case they would have to ask the Admissions Office to allow them to defer enrollment for an additional semester.
Returning Hamilton students could be present on campus or request to complete their coursework remotely from home, or they could request a personal leave of absence. But Hamilton’s website warned that students who did so could face “financial implications for not being enrolled in college” or “consequences for academic progress.”
“Most students are having a positive experience on campus this fall, and we encourage everyone to join our on-campus community for the spring. We know that some of you may decide to take classes remotely and others may decide to apply for a leave of absence. We will do what we can to assist students whose circumstances present obstacles to studying on campus in the spring,” Hamilton’s website said.
Hamilton, along with Colby and Connecticut College, join Bowdoin in allowing students to visit other residence halls, provided they wear a mask, abide by occupancy limits and observe social distancing guidelines. Of this group, Bowdoin is the only NESCAC with an explicit prohibition on entering another student’s bedroom.
At Amherst, Bates and Williams, students either cannot enter other residence halls or cannot do so without written permission. Williams plans to revisit this policy after March 1. Middlebury and Trinity currently do not allow students to enter other residence halls, but they are both in campus quarantine or transition phases due to students having recently arrived on campus. Middlebury students will only have swipe access to their own residential buildings, but the rules about which buildings they can enter will change depending on their campus status.
Middlebury is the only NESCAC to adopt a “close contact” system in addition to a roommate or pod system for determining other individuals with whom students are allowed to come into close contact. Middlebury students do not have to wear masks with their roommates following the initial post-arrival quarantine, but they will also be allowed to have a “limited number of close contacts” that will change depending on COVID-19 conditions on campus, in the local area and in the state of Vermont. Those who share a residence are automatically close contacts. Students are required to keep a close contact journal that lists the names of anyone with whom they have been within six feet for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more in 24 hours.
All NESCACs eliminated or shortened spring break, choosing to lengthen winter break or add wellness days throughout the semester. All are testing students two or three times each week, with most having offered pre-arrival tests or encouraged students to obtain them on their own. The schools are somewhat divided on dining, with some offering exclusively grab-and-go meals and some allowing reduced capacity in-person dining. Trinity is allowing students to visit student-run coffee shops, with limited seating made available. But several NESCACs, fearing transmission from food preparation and consumption, have turned off or unplugged appliances in residence hall kitchens to prevent students from gathering to cook and eat together.