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‘Down in the Dirt': How a Vermont University Beat Back the Coronavirus

The nation’s oldest private military college found itself at war against the coronavirus shortly after the start of this semester

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A university president in Vermont is thanking the school’s students, faculty and staff for their sacrifices to improve campus health following an outbreak of COVID-19 early this semester that threatened to shut down the campus.

“This campus might be one of the safest places in New England right now, and we’re proud of that,” said Mark Anarumo, the president of Norwich University in Northfield.

The nation’s oldest private military college found itself at war against the coronavirus shortly after the start of this semester. More than 100 COVID-19 infections ended up being confirmed, Anarumo said.

“That’s when we made the decision, ‘We have to save the semester,’” Anarumo recalled.

A lot of people left larger cities for smaller communities in places like Vermont after COVID-19 struck.

Anarumo took over the reins of Norwich last June.

In a major test for someone still pretty new to the job, he quickly ordered widespread in-room isolation, shut down the dining hall to everything but take-out and offered prorated room and board refunds — with no stigma, he emphasized — to anyone who wanted to leave and learn online instead.

The result was a sudden decline and eventual elimination of cases, Anarumo said, with the school getting a clean bill of health for the last three weeks.

“We’ve recovered beautifully,” Anarumo told NECN and NBC10 Boston Tuesday.

The dining hall just reopened Monday and no one was surprised to see the president sitting down for chow with students, spaced apart.

“He’s down in the dirt with his troops, basically,” observed Steven Quill, a Norwich junior from Virginia.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor, spoke about the plan for schools to reopen in Massachusetts during a virtual panel at Tufts University Monday.

In late January and early February, Anarumo actually moved into the barracks for several nights, not just to see dorm life but to make sure the young people were holding up okay with all the stress and isolation of the pandemic.

“We must prioritize mental health,” Anarumo insisted. “There’s a mental health crisis in the United States — there just is, and we can’t pretend that’s not the case.”

Living in the barracks also gave the president an opportunity to model behavior he wanted to see from students, such as mask-wearing and physical distancing.

Several students in the dining hall Tuesday said what they saw in that dorm stay was a leader walking the walk: living under the same strict policies he imposed on his campus.

There were other lessons from COVID-19 at Norwich, too.

“A big part of the military is overcoming and adapting to things,” said sophomore Sarah Kuras, from Connecticut.

“I know a few of my friends, they’d have good days and bad days in their rooms,” said junior Nolan Hensley, who is from Illinois. “Just reaching out to them and being that good dude or dudette and looking out for your person left and right to you, that’s a big thing I personally look out for.”

Anarumo praised Norwich’s students, staff and faculty for stepping up for campus health, a response celebrated on a sign near the entrance to the campus, which reads, “Norwich forever, in this together.”

Anarumo said that later this month, he’ll temporarily move into the civilian dorms, too. He said he wants that to demonstrate how he doesn’t show favoritism for the Corps of Cadets.

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