State unveils plan to open colleges and universities

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MONTPELIER — The state has developed a plan aimed at keeping safe the 56,000 students who will be attending higher education in the fall.

"We know how critical in-person education is," Gov. Phil Scott said during his bi-weekly news conference on Tuesday. "We're working with higher education to welcome back students to campuses in the safest way possible. As you might imagine, there are many unique challenges to accomplish this."

Richard Schneider, the former president of Norwich University, served as the chairman of the committee tasked with developing methods that will allow the colleges and universities to protect their students, faculty and staff.

He said the guidelines issued by the state detail quarantine procedures, daily health screenings, reduced class sizes, staggered dining schedules, limiting visitation to the campus by non-students and limiting dorm rooms to two students each.

Students, faculty and staff will also be required to sign a health safety contract that is meant to hold them accountable for taking risks that could spread the virus.

Schneider also said the state is recommending colleges and universities consider sending students home for Thanksgiving but not allowing them to return until the spring. Students will be allowed to continue their coursework online or might be tested before they leave on extended break, said Schneider, who also said the guidelines are meant to make Vermont "the safest place to go to college."

"There are many who will think this guidance is too restrictive and others who will think it's not enforceable or think we shouldn't reopen colleges at all," said Scott.

Schneider said a lot of work has gone into the planning and the task force believes the state can reopen colleges safely and will have structures in place to minimize any possible exposures or outbreaks.

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"We really want our students back," he said. "We need to do it safely, though."

Schneider also noted that the suggested guidelines are minimum requirements and colleges and universities are free to make their safeguards more restrictive.

"We are going to work to make sure our schools remain some of the safest learning environments in the country," he said.

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RECOVERY

Joan Goldstein, the commissioner of the Department of Economic Development, said that on the first day of accepting applications online for the next round of economic recovery grants for businesses and nonprofits, the state received 2,300 applications.

"The system held up," she said.

The Agency of Commerce and Community Development, of which DED is a part, is reviewing applications requesting $20 million in relief and the Vermont Department of Taxes is reviewing $36 million worth of requests.

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Goldstein said both agencies are communicating with some applicants to rectify minor problems in their applications or to verify they qualify. She said it could take several weeks for disbursement, and the money needs to be spent before the end of the year.

Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said Vermont continues to stay on the right track in limiting infections. He also noted that no new cases have been recorded as a result of the outbreaks in Winooski/Burlington, Fair Haven and Brattleboro. Levine said Vermont's successful contact tracing program has been effective in containing those outbreaks.

Levine also noted that new studies have shown that while large droplets that are expelled as a result of coughing, talking or sneezing fall to the ground quickly, smaller droplets can remain in the air in confined spaces for several hours. He also noted that social justice protests have not resulted in spikes of infections.

"In Vermont, the data clearly says there have been no cases related to protests," Levine said, noting that data from other states indicates the same across the country. "People [at protests] tend to be wearing facial coverings to a high degree and they are outdoors, which is always better than indoors."

He said this is not the case in states where people at beaches and bars are not practicing social distancing or wearing masks.

"That is where the concern has come in, but not from the protest groups," he said.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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