University of Vermont

Readying for Fall Semester, UVM Plans Aggressive COVID-19 Testing of Students

Some neighbors of the university worry the return of students from around the country could cause COVID outbreaks

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Students are returning to the campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, where some neighbors wish the school instead stuck with online learning—to prevent possible COVID-19 infections.

UVM, though, insists it has a well-thought-out plan that puts community safety top of mind.

"I obviously won't want to be the person bringing the virus here," said University of Vermont junior Olga Katayenko, one of a steady stream of mask-wearing students Monday going into the campus health center to be tested for the coronavirus.

Senior Elizabeth Anderson said she has been in Burlington all summer, but came for peace of mind.

"I think we're a little nervous about people coming back from out of state, but it seems like UVM is handling quarantine pretty well," Anderson said.

UVM views student quarantines and testing as critical to reopening for in-person learning. The school estimates it'll cost $8-10 million this fall alone to pay for tests for its 12,000 undergraduate, graduate, and continuing ed students when they arrive on campus—then once weekly for five weeks, and more as needed.

The president of the University of Vermont, Suresh Garimella, acknowledged this month in the publication Inside Higher Ed that his plan may not work at some schools which are in more densely-settled large cities, or ones facing a financial crisis.

However, at UVM, Garimella wrote, "an ambitious, science-based testing program just could make possible the experience we all desire: a full semester of rich on-campus learning."

Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, represents many of the university's neighbors at the Vermont State House and says some of her constituents are nervous or downright afraid that returning students could unknowingly be coronavirus carriers who lead to community outbreaks.

"Who is going to take responsibility if somebody dies," Rachelson asked Monday in an interview with NECN and NBC10 Boston.

Rachelson is calling for even more frequent testing, more public transparency about test results, and promises from UVM that it'll enforce rules on off-campus students.

"We wouldn't let a cruise ship come park in Burlington harbor and let 8-10,000 people out," Rachelson argued.

Friday, Gov. Phil Scott gave authority to Vermont communities, especially college towns, to limit crowd sizes or hours bars can operate if city or town leaders think it'll help keep the spread of the virus low.

"Most people my age, and juniors who live off-campus, have been up here all summer, and our numbers have stayed pretty good," observed Hailey Weinstein, a UVM Senior. "So that kind of gives me some faith that if we're all following the rules, maybe when the younger kids come in, they're going to do the same we've been doing."

UVM President Garimella wrote in Inside Higher Ed that under the university's restart plan, campus workers don't have to pay for tests, and supportive isolation rooms have been set up for any students who test positive.

Concerned neighbors just hope it's all enough.

Classrooms will look quite different in many places when students go back to school in several weeks. In Vermont, some educators will be encouraging physical distancing by taking their lessons outdoors.
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