Richard W. Schneider heads Gov. Phil Scott’s task force for reopenings

Vermont colleges have kept the coronavirus at bay at a rate many states could envy, news outlets and state officials reported recently. And Norwich University President Emeritus Richard W. Schneider has helped lead the push, heading Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s college-reopening task force.

In an Oct. 6 press conference, Scott reported Vermont colleges and universities, which have welcomed 38,000 students back to campus for the fall semester, had tallied 51 COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 6, a 13-case increase since Sept. 11. Scott added that Vermont colleges have a positive test rate of 0.05% from 96,000 tests administered since the August start of student returns.

Vermont college officials told University Business magazine, a national publication, on Friday that the state’s 13 institutions worked together, joining state officials and doctors in developing a comprehensive virus-control plan.

“(Vermont Gov. Phil Scott) talks about opening the spigot slowly. That has been the saving grace. ... That’s why we’re the number one safe state in the union.” Norwich University President Emeritus Richard W. Schneider

As of Monday, Norwich University reported a single active COVID-19 case among 1,665 students in residence on the Northfield campus, a 0.06% infection rate. To date, Norwich has reported six positive COVID-19 cases.

On Oct. 9, Norwich President Mark C. Anarumo told the Board of Fellows that the university has conducted 9,000 COVID-19 tests since early August, guided by Nursing Director Paulette Thabault and a team of nursing students. He added that Norwich’s testing continues, with more than 1,000 weekly.

Money from the Norwich Fund has helped back the tests.

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Norwich University has administered 9,000 COVID-19 tests since students began arriving in August. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

Norwich’s low infection rate follows a statewide trend. Vermont Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Mike Pieciak on Friday told the local news site VTDigger that Vermont’s COVID-19 infection rate for colleges was 0.17% for September.

University of Vermont President Suresh Garimella told University Business that statewide leadership and responsible student behavior, before and during the semester, helped keep coronavirus cases down.

“There’s a great reliance on science and great respect for medical and public health experts,” he told the magazine.

Norwich students signed the Maroon and Gold Behavioral Contract during phased-in arrivals in August, promising to wear face masks, physically distance and wash their hands frequently.

For the first several weeks, students were confined to campus and had limited their interactions to small family-like groups. As a precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic, Norwich’s campus, including buildings, fields and tracks, is closed to the public.

The students’ progress, and near-zero infections, have prompted Anarumo to twice dial back restrictions, clearing students first to shop and exercise then to seek part-time jobs and internships and to volunteer — a quintessential Norwich activity — in Washington and Orange counties.

Standing out

Vermont’s low infections stand out. As of Monday, more than 35 U.S. colleges had tallied 1,000 or more positive cases, data by The New York Times, based on a survey of more than 1,700 American colleges and universities, show. The survey sample includes every four-year public institution and private college competing in NCAA sports.

Vermont’s planning also stands out. On Oct. 6, NPR, citing data from more than 1,400 colleges compiled by Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative, reported that more than 2 out of 3 colleges with in-person classes lack a clear COVID-19 testing plan or are testing only at-risk students — those who have had contact with someone who tested COVID-19-positive or who feel sick.

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Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, seen at Norwich University’s bicentennial Homecoming festivities in 2019, has acted cautiously to reopen economic sectors amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

NPR further reported that just 25% of colleges with in-person classes and more than 5,000 undergraduates are mass screening or randomly testing students for the coronavirus. Just 6%, NPR said, are routinely testing all of their students. (Norwich, which has 2,600 undergraduates, falls outside this sample.)

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sept. 30 issued new coronavirus testing guidelines, listing five strategies for testing asymptomatic people with no known COVID-19 exposure. The tactics range from universal, one-time entry screening; repeat or random testing; and no screening.

Previous CDC guidance, Inside Higher Ed reported, had recommended against entry testing — testing all students, faculty and staff upon their return to campus. But the updated guidance suggests entry screening combined with regular serial testing might prevent or cut coronavirus transmission.

Three-pronged approach

Schneider, who retired from Norwich on May 31 after 28 years as president, described the three-pronged opening approach Vermont colleges followed: bring students back safely; keep them safe on campus; quickly identify and treat any students who get infected.

Norwich, following the state’s plan, had students from U.S. counties with a higher COVID-19 infection rates than Vermont return to campus two weeks early to quarantine. Students who traveled to campus with someone other than their immediate family and students who arrived by commercial transportation also entered campus quarantine.

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Ximena Bernhardt wears her mask amid other rooks in Norwich University’s Corps of Cadets in August. President Emeritus Richard W. Schneider, who’s heading Vermont’s college reopening task force, has said vigilant mask wearing, physical distancing and hand washing will have to continue. (Photo by Mark Collier.)

In a Sept. 21 episode of the “EdUp Experience,” a national higher-education podcast, Schneider called Vermont one of the safest states in the union to attend college amid the pandemic. He credited Scott, who he said had a strategy for reopening every economic sector, from tourism, to hospitality to higher education.

“(Scott) talks about opening the spigot slowly,” Schneider said on the show. “That has been the saving grace. ... That’s why we’re the number one safe state in the union.”

Scott told Albany, New York-based WAMC radio on Sept. 30 that although Vermont’s measures were working, no one can relax.

“If we let up and get more relaxed all the hard work we’ve done can slip away as well,” he said.

Schneider agreed with Scott, telling University Business that tests may signal progress against the coronavirus but cannot replace prevention. He said he was proud of Vermont college students for faithfully wearing masks, distancing and washing, and said they’ll need to keep doing so, especially as weather turns cold and activities move indoors.

“We will have to be more vigilant,” he told University Business. “This takes hard work, it’s not luck.”

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