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How New Hampshire colleges are preparing for reopening this fall

NH Public Radio
Published: 8/21/2020 4:50:41 PM
Modified: 8/21/2020 4:50:27 PM

Students are already returning to New Hampshire’s university and college campuses for the start of the fall semester – amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are some frequently asked questions about higher education reopening in the state.

What have colleges been doing to make sure students aren’t arriving on campus with COVID?

Many colleges are requiring students to get tested before they arrive on campus, and they must test negative.

For the University System of New Hampshire, this pre-arrival testing is happening through partnerships with ConvenientMD at designated locations in New Hampshire, Maine or Massachusetts, and through mail home kits sent by Quest Diagnostics.

Dartmouth College will be sending out saliva-based tests for students to complete prior to arrival. As of Wednesday, Aug. 19, the college had tested 750 graduate and professional students

At most schools, students will also be tested on the first day they arrive on campus, and many colleges have staggered student arrival over several days to allow for testing and social distancing.

In a press conference on August 13, state Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said that there have been some cases of students testing positive pre-arrival, although she didn’t specify a number. Shibinette said that included both New Hampshire and out of state students.

“We never like to say a positive case is a good thing, but if I were to say something is a catch, it is finding a positive person before they get on campus. That is definitely a good catch,” she said.

Earlier this week, the Union Leader reported that there were two positive cases of COVID at St. Anselm’s College during move in.

University System Chancellor Todd Leach said there’s been a 0.4 percent positivity rate in testing thus far, and that includes both pre-arrival and tests they’ve done with faculty and staff as well.

UNH is asking students who are coming from outside of New England to quarantine for 14 days prior to arriving on campus, per state guidelines.

Will students continue to be tested once they are on campus?

Yes. Each college will test students the first day they arrive, again within the first two weeks after arriving, and frequently throughout the semester.

Testing plans vary slightly by college. Dartmouth College, for example, will test students three times in the first week: upon arrival, on the third day of being on campus, and on the seventh day of being on campus. Dartmouth is partnering with the Broad Institute for these tests.

Students at Dartmouth will then be tested at least once a month, according to Josh Keniston, Interim Vice President of Campus Services at Dartmouth.

Students at the UNH campus will be tested as often as twice a week for the first few weeks.

UNH plans to build out a lab on campus that can process “tens of thousands of tests a week,” according to Chancellor Leach.

“We want surveillance testing throughout the year,” Leach said. The lab would ideally be able to serve all USNH campuses, Leach said.

New England College says it will also have testing throughout the semester for students, faculty and staff. The college is requiring students to check their temperatures twice a day using a smart thermometer connected to an app on their device.

“If your temperature is elevated, you get a red face, and it says please go to the health center,” said Michele Perkins, president of New England College.

What do students say about how this is going for them?

Some students say they’re concerned about turnaround time for the required tests. USNH says it’s received commitments from vendors that test results will be returned in 3 to 5 days.

Reese Yeatman is from Maryland and about to start her freshman year at UNH. She had some confusion with Quest and her mail-in test. At first, she thought she needed a telemedicine appointment and couldn’t get one in time. Later, Quest clarified that the appointment wasn’t needed.

Yeatman said she’s anxious about how the semester will play out, especially as an out-of-state student who may have a long trip back home if classes are remote.

“I think UNH’s measures will work only if all students comply, and that’s the most crucial part of this whole process,” she said. “And that’s what I’m nervous about.”

UNH senior Natalie Czepiel thinks reopening in person is not the right decision. She’s immunocompromised, and will be taking classes remotely for her last semester of college.

“I don’t want to die for UNH,” she said. Czepiel said she’s also concerned about the progress UNH is making on building out its own lab to process COVID-19 tests.

Students at Plymouth State University have reported some problems.

Administrators sent an email on Thursday to students and their families, saying that there have been “unexpected delays surrounding the delivery of COVID-19 test results.”

This means that some students will be coming to campus later than planned, working with PSU’s staggered move in plan.

“Students who are not on campus for whatever reason will begin their studies remotely for this first week of classes,” an email from the college reads.

Plymouth State starts classes on Aug. 24.

What about professors?

Jeremiah Duncan, president of the faculty union at Plymouth State, said that faculty also share concerns around testing, turnaround time and potential false negatives.

Duncan recently decided to hold all his classes online, both for health and safety reasons, and to eliminate the uncertainty of possibly having to go remote in the fall.

“Everyone that I have spoken to will say some version of ‘it’s not a matter of if or when they’ll have to shut down the campus and send us online again,’ ” he said. “Is it two weeks, eight weeks? Who knows?”

How are colleges in New Hampshire reacting to the news of other campuses, such as UNC-Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, shifting to remote classes after starting with in-person classes?

On Wednesday, Dartmouth College announced that it would delay announcing undergraduate student arrival dates and room assignments for the fall because it wants to monitor the progression of COVID-19 cases and how reopening goes at other peer institutions.

Todd Leach, chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire, said USNH is monitoring the national situation, but that for now campuses will move ahead with current reopening plans.

“I think we have a somewhat different situation in New Hampshire,” he said. “Partly because of the very low background rates (of infection) we have.”

Leach also mentioned that many of the University System’s students come from New England, “and in general, New England is an area that has lower background rates than some of the institutions outside of this area are having to deal with.”

“If we feel that circumstances change, and the data warrants it, we will make a decision to go in a different direction,” he said.

This is really hard: stopping young people from socializing, especially when students have been apart from their friends since March. How do schools plan to enforce social distancing on campus?

All schools have also asked students to sign either community commitment agreements, or in the case of the University System, they’ve asked students to sign informed consent agreements. That basically says that they understand that if they’re in violation of these public health standards there are consequences, including being asked to leave campus.

There has been pushback from students about the consent agreement, in particular to one section that says that students assume the risks associated with being at UNH, including the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Some schools have released more details around rules of behavior and social events. UNH has prohibited gatherings of more than 25 people. Dartmouth has said many of its gatherings will happen virtually.

Schools are also limiting who can enter residence halls. In some instances, students can’t have any outside guests.

How are college towns preparing for the arrival of students?

Most of the state’s large college towns have passed mask ordinances including Hanover, Keene, Plymouth, and Durham.

Some residents in these towns say they are particularly concerned about parties or large gatherings at off-campus housing.

“We’ve got local residents who run the gamut from, ‘how could you possibly let Dartmouth reconvene here this fall, please, Hanover, prevent Dartmouth from reopening,’ which we can’t do,” said Hanover Town Manager, Julia Griffin, “to residents who are saying ,’it’s fine if they reconvene, but please shut down all off campus rental housing because that’s the area of activity that we’re most concerned about, because we happen to live next door to a rental unit.’ ”

The town of Hanover, is taking several steps, including enforcement of an ordinance that says that no more than three unrelated people can live in a unit.

The town is also considering an emergency amendment to an ordinance that would limit outdoor activities to no more than 10 people without a permit. That’s being discussed at a selectboard meeting on August 31.

Todd Selig, the Durham town manager, said the town and university have been working closely with the Durham Landlords Association.

“We believe that there will be a huge effort to set down expectations for social behavior,” Selig said. “The university will hold students accountable for exceeding the gathering limits.”

Some businesses in these down times say they are looking forward to having the foot traffic of students after several difficult months, and they are hoping things work out for the fall.

“It’s just been so difficult if there’s another shout down, we experience another surge, and the college experiences a lot of cases and has to go remote,” said Tracy Hutchins, director of the Upper Valley Business Alliance. “It absolutely will have an effect on our local economy and our businesses.”

What do colleges have planned if or when there are outbreaks of COVID-19? How do they plan to notify students, parents and local residents?

Students who test positive will be asked to quarantine or isolate. Each college has set aside beds for students to do that. They plan to track the number of students in quarantine as one way of determining if there is an outbreak, and as a measure of how severe the situation on campus is.

Students have been asked to pack “go-bags,” with some extra clothes, toiletries, and necessary items to complete schoolwork, in case they need to be quarantined or isolated.

Colleges say there are several variables that would help them decide to go remote. Plymouth State has 16 “trigger conditions” – including positive cases per week in the state, positive testing percentage per week at the university, and statewide hospitalizations – that would push them to change how they’re operating on campus. Institutions say they will work closely with state health officials throughout the fall term.

That could mean, depending on severity, that as many classes as possible would go remote, or the full campus would go remote.

Michele Perkins, president of New England College, said her college will inform the town of Henniker if there are cases on campus.

New Hampshire colleges and universities will also be working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services to do contact tracing in the event there are positive cases on campus.

According to Lori Shibbinette, state Health Commissioner, once students are on campus in New Hampshire, they will need to list the college as their place of residence when taking COVID-19 tests. That means, if a student from out-of-state tests positive, that test will still be counted here in New Hampshire.

UNH will also have a dashboard of cases and trends that they’ll post for the university and surrounding community to monitor.

 

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.




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