College reopenings test town-and-gown relations

College reopenings test town-and-gown relations
© Greg Nash

Middlebury College President Laurie Patton is confident enough in her school’s reopening plan to teach an in-person course this fall, but residents of the tiny Vermont town are still worried about the influx of students and their potential to spread COVID-19.

The small liberal arts college has taken strict precautions against COVID-19 — testing on arrival, random testing throughout the term and mandatory face coverings in public spaces. Still, students, many from high-risk areas, have flooded campus over the last few weeks, in a town that had previously seen fewer than five coronavirus cases in total, according to state data.

Many colleges and universities across the country are welcoming students back to campus for in-person classes. In doing so, they have the support of President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE, who last week urged universities to reopen.


But outbreaks on campus are likely to spread to the surrounding community, according to Crystal Watson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“As insulated as some college campuses may feel, they are just a subpopulation of the larger community around them,” Watson said.

She noted that on-campus outbreaks could spread to the community if students infect faculty and staff, or when infected students leave campus.

Risk of local transmission has complicated reopening efforts and strained relations between schools and town residents.

Many small towns — like Middlebury, Vt., and Northampton, Mass., — have long maintained strong ties with their local colleges, but the pandemic is testing those relations in new ways.

Henry Ganey, a junior at Middlebury College and a native of the town, said that historically, the two have a “very symbiotic relationship.”

The college is the town’s largest employer, according to Middlebury Selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter, and students pump millions of dollars into the local economy each year.


That relationship allowed local and college officials to come together when the coronavirus hit: In March, they quickly worked in concert to craft a plan that first ensured students evacuated, and later determined how to best bring students back this fall, according to the college and Carpenter.

Yet even with extensive information-sharing, Middlebury’s call to bring students to campus was its own, not the town’s. The decision raised some eyebrows in the community.

State Sen. Ruth Hardy (D), who represents Addison County, which includes Middlebury, said she — and many of her nearly 40,000 constituents — doesn’t think the college should be bringing students back this semester.

She’s unsure the school’s efforts will be enough to prevent a potential outbreak as upwards of 2,000 students arrive from all over the world to the town of 8,500.

“It’s scary for a lot of people,” Hardy told The Hill.

A Middlebury spokesperson said the town and college have had a “vibrant, constructive, and collaborative relationship” since March, and that “dozens” of college administrators are in “nearly daily contact” with town leaders.

Like Middlebury, Smith College in Northampton is vital to its small town. But unlike Middlebury, Smith won’t be holding in-person classes this semester.

The college ultimately decided to host all fall semester classes online, a reversal after initially announcing it would bring students back to campus, in part because administrators said they felt a responsibility toward the local community.

Smith College President Kathleen McCartney said in a letter sharing the decision to remain virtual that students have a “civic duty to the communities in which we live and work” and that the move would protect not only Smith affiliates, but Northampton residents.

“Because the town and Smith are so interconnected, I wanted the community to know that they factored into my decision,” McCartney told The Hill, noting she has a close relationship with the mayor and city government. “I feel a responsibility not only to Smith College but also to the larger community.”

Northampton has around 29,000 residents, while the college has over 2,400 students. The town has had 321 cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday, according to state data.

In the 43,000-person Burlington, Vt., home to the University of Vermont and Champlain College and a handful of schools in surrounding towns, city leadership has responded to students’ imminent return by passing independent measures as they try to prevent outbreaks in town.

On Aug. 20, the Burlington City Council approved an emergency order that moves up the last call for alcohol sales from 2 a.m. to 11 p.m. and limits indoor gatherings to 10 people, substantially more restrictive than the statewide 75-person limit.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger (D) said at a press conference that the order serves as a reminder that “the threat of the virus remains very real and that college life this fall must be different than it is in normal times.”


The steps taken by the city followed Gov. Phil Scott’s (R) decision to extend state coronavirus-related emergency orders giving local governments greater control over gathering size and liquor sales, in order to mitigate potential risks as college students return to the state.

A university spokesperson told The Hill they’re “supportive” of the city’s efforts to curb off-campus behavior that could risk community health, though open letters between the college and town have revealed some tensions around pandemic decisions. 

In Charlottesville, Va., local officials have butted heads with university administrators, and have been unable to pass new restrictions like the ones in Burlington.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker (I), whose town of 48,000 is home to the University of Virginia, called the school’s plan to reopen a “recipe for disaster” in July. The university is welcoming back all students who choose to return, with precautions like mandatory pre-arrival testing and extra cleaning. But they aren’t requiring masks in public places or conducting random testing throughout the semester.

Walker said she has very little ability to impose measures affecting college students. Instead, she said, it’s up to the governor to craft statewide regulations and the school’s president to oversee campus behavior.

”We had to follow suit with the decisions that the governor is making, so we can’t do anything other than implore the university to make a different decision,” Walker said at a press conference last month.

A university official told The Hill that the school discussed plans with the mayor, the leadership of Albemarle County and local and state health authorities, but declined to provide specifics about those discussions.


For small colleges in large cities, college students are just one of many considerations for health officials.

In Los Angeles, Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe said her administration worked for five months on a plan they were confident would allow students to return to campus safely this fall. The plan met draft county guidelines, was vetted by health experts and was designed to protect the local community from any outbreaks by keeping Harvey Mudd’s roughly 900 students in a bubble on campus.

Then, on Aug. 10, the Los Angeles County Department of Health issued new guidelines that prevented colleges from housing almost any students. Klawe met with health officials four days later to try to convince them to grant the small school a waiver exempting them from the requirements, but was unsuccessful.

Klawe said health officials expressed to her that they could not implement a waiver process because too many schools would apply for one, leaving them without enough time to process them before the semester began.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Department of Health said in a statement that it collaborated with a “large working group of higher education administrators” to develop a set of guidelines during a rapidly evolving situation, but draft guidelines shifted as the pandemic progressed.

The spokesperson added that tens of thousands of college students traveling to Los Angeles County from areas of the country with a surge in COVID-19 cases could jeopardize “a priority for everyone”: the county’s ability to reopen K-12 schools.

Hardy, the Vermont state senator, told The Hill that primary and secondary schools should be prioritized because they provide essential social services, including meals and child care. She added that college students can generally take time off when younger students cannot.


Not everyone is on the same page, though. Carpenter, the selectboard chairman, said educating college students and younger students isn’t mutually exclusive.

“There’s no reason we can't continue to educate in both our primary grades and our college environment,” he said.

But students are well aware it only takes a few individuals violating school or town protocol to severely damage the town-gown relations.

“I really do think we can do this. They wouldn't have us back if they didn't think we could,” said Ganey, the Middlebury junior. “But it only takes one or two people to throw this off the rails.”

Rachel Scully contributed reporting.