Since the New Year, some of our region’s private colleges have been unveiling their spring semester plans during COVID-19.
Marist College and Vassar College, private colleges in the Town of Poughkeepsie, are delaying their starts, though differently. The spring semester at Marist begins February 15 with remote coursework, while in-person classes are set to start on March 1. The spring semester will end later than usual, on May 28, because of the late start. Marist Executive Vice President Geoff Brackett says the college’s internal medical advice team and CDC guidance helped shape the plan.
“So for spring, one of the first issues that they wanted to ensure we manage properly was the expected surge during flu season,” says Brackett. “So that was a big piece of the determining factor for us to delay the start of our spring term.”
At Marist, a flu vaccine is mandatory. Up to 80 percent of the undergraduates live on campus, and Marist is treating the campus that sits between the Hudson River and a busy Route 9 corridor, as an island, for the most part.
“We couldn’t develop what you might consider a full bubble, but we came up with the concept of the island,” Brackett says. “So we wanted to restrict travel as much as possible and ensure that there was a community engagement focused on the campus and focused on the activities of the semester.”
Vassar College students begin classes February 17. President Elizabeth Bradley says the campus will be an island, entirely.
“The implication of that for us is we will absolutely keep the perimeter of our campus, we really will not have visitors from outside and we will not let students leave the campus once they’ve moved in,” says Bradley. “So that’s even more important, I think, given our surroundings.”
Marist had to switch to remote learning a few times during the fall semester following COVID outbreaks, one stemming from an off-campus party. Brackett says a few changes for the spring semester should help in prevention.
“We’ll be expanding our surveillance testing program and enhancing the already successful elements that we had in place for fall in anticipation of a very challenging macro environment, as you know, outside of the college, that we need to mitigate to have a successful spring,” says Brackett. “But we’re very, we’re very optimistic that we’ll be able to continue the success we’ve had.”
Both schools require students return to campus with proof of a negative COVID test. Marist’s Brackett credits this protocol with having identified 37 positives in the fall and allowing the school to get off to a successful start. He says that is step one.
“The second is that we have a very talented team of student health professionals that are dedicated to ensuring symptomatic students, any other students who may need to be tested are,” Brackett says. “There is a daily attestation so that students are monitored every single day for symptoms and ensuring that they have communication with health services and telemedicine and onsite medical support as well.”
Vassar’s Bradley, a global health expert, says the testing regime in the spring will differ a bit given the surge in cases in Dutchess County and beyond, which wasn’t the case in the fall. A pre-arrival test continues to be required.
“And then on the very first day they're here, we are going to give them a rapid test, which is an antigen test with high sensitivity and specificity, which has a 15-minute result. Everyone will get that. And as long as that's negative, they'll be able to move in to their normal room,” Bradley says. “We will give them a PCR, the more gold-standard test on the same day, day one, just to confirm. And then four days later, they'll get another PCR test. And once we're there, and we're bringing people in about 200, or a little bit more than that, a day doing this, once we're at the end of that and everyone has two on-campus, PCR negative tests, I think we'll be in a very good place. You know, that's, that's where you're kind of on your island and safer and you can relax a little bit. So that's what our strategy is.”
Meantime, Union College in Schenectady has a rising number of COVID cases since starting its trimester.
“In a video last weekend, I shared that the number of students who tested positive for COVID-19 upon returning to campus exceeded the number of students testing positive during all of the fall term,” Harris says.
College president David Harris says the first week of the winter term yielded 27 positive COVID cases among students, and seven among faculty and staff. There have been 51 active cases since January 1. Harris, who does not believe the cases are from a single event, imposed a two-week campus quarantine that began January 17.
“We must limit infection from outside campus and stop the spread on campus, the vast majority of which appears related to interactions in residential and social spaces,” says Harris.
Harris delivered the news in a video message.