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With social distancing and testing, Connecticut College students return to campus

New London — When Margaret Ferry, parent of a Connecticut College student, made the turn on Tuesday morning to drive toward the campus athletic center, the site of the college’s COVID-19 testing, she felt a surge of emotions.

Ferry said she felt happy to see the beautiful view of the water, a reminder of how nice it is here. But she also felt sadness that she was wearing a mask — a reminder of the pandemic.

Ferry, a physician and Massachusetts resident, said that when her patients ask her how she is doing, she tells them that her sophomore daughter is returning to college but the campus has a “highway moat” around it, and all the students are eager to return.

“I think they’re going to do the right thing and they’ve all been doing the right thing all summer anyway,” Ferry said. “They’re smart kids, and they’re a closer-knit community than some of the bigger schools. I just said, ‘She’s got to be a pioneer and show us that we can do it,’ and I think that’s what we need right now, so I’m glad that they’re back.”

About 1,400 students are returning to the Conn College campus, either living in on-campus or off-campus housing, or commuting, while about 350 students are not coming to campus but are enrolled in remote learning, said Dean of Students Victor Arcelus. Those on campus will participate in a mix of remote and in-person classes. Classes all start remotely on Sept. 1, and in-person instruction begins on Sept. 11 and will end Nov. 21, with all  students finishing the semester remotely, according to a college webpage.

Twice-a-week testing

As about 350 students arrive on campus each day this week, their first stop is a COVID-19 testing center set up at the Dayton Arena, which typically serves as an ice hockey rink. They then receive a mask, hand sanitizer and a pass to get onto campus, where they are greeted with signs reminding them to social distance, wear a mask and wash their hands, and thermometer stations at locations that include the dining hall.

Arcelus said students, who are coming from around the country and world, were expected to self-quarantine at home for two weeks, and take a COVID-19 test, before arriving on campus. A few who tested positive are recovering at home until Student Health Services clears them to return to campus.

Students are tested as they arrive, and then will be tested twice a week throughout the semester in what Arcelus called “one of the most rigorous, if not the most rigorous testing regimen in the country.” Faculty and staff will be tested one to two times a week, depending on how frequently they come to campus.

The school will roll out later this week a dashboard to show the number of people tested and results, he said.

The school is partnering with the Broad Institute, a program affiliated with Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for the testing: a lower nasal self-swab test that people perform themselves while under observation, Arcelus said.

At the testing site, students blow their nose at an outside tent station and get their temperature checked as they walk into the facility. They then go to a registration station, where they answer questions and show the results of their pre-arrival test, and later they are sent a communication about the duration of their quarantine period.

The minimum quarantine period is six to seven days, the length of time to receive two negative tests, though it could be as long as 14 days for students arriving from states on the travel advisory list, Arcelus said.

Students will get their test results through the CoVerified app, or in a positive case, through follow-up by a doctor. They are daily expected to take their temperature and fill out symptom checks on the app.

Students who receive a positive test result will move into isolation housing, where Student Health Services staff will virtually check on them, for at least 10 days, Arcelus said.

Dr. Keith Grant, system director of infection prevention with Hartford Healthcare, said students will have testing results in 48 hours or less, and contact tracing will include communication to the community and families.

The school developed its protocols in consultation with a panel of alumni experts, including an emergency room doctor and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention professionals, and with Hartford Healthcare, which runs the school’s Student Health Services and sports medicine program, Arcelus said.

At a time when colleges and universities across the country are grappling with issues such as gatherings and parties held by students, and how to enforce COVID-19 rules, Arcelus said each student signs a “Camels Care Pledge” and will listen to a Zoom call this week about what the expectations are to keep the campus and community safe, as well as the consequences if students don’t follow the rules. Students are not only required to wear masks and social distance, but also are asked to hold one another accountable, for example asking, “Do you have your mask with you?” if they pass another student on campus who is not wearing a mask.

“The way that we are framing these conversations is a call to action,” he said.

For egregious violations, such as not abiding by quarantine or isolation, or holding parties, students will have to leave campus and complete their education remotely, Arcelus said. They also could be at risk of being suspended or expelled.

College during the pandemic

For Elizabeth Freeman of Needham, Mass., dropping her son off at college on Tuesday brought a mix of excitement and concern.

“It seems like a gamble to me, but you still have that same feeling of excitement that your son is going back to school and it’s a great environment,” she said in an interview outside the testing center. She added that it’s been five months since he was last in school and doing classes from the dining room table is not exactly what college was designed for.

Her son, Eric, a junior, said returning didn’t feel too different but was a bit more stressful because it’s not as easy to go out and buy something he may have forgotten to bring. “I’d say the biggest difference is trying to figure out what the rules are and also how many people are going to follow them,” he added.

His mother said it would be unfortunate if the college sent everybody home in a few weeks because of some parties.

Eric said he plans to abide by the rules. “We’re from an area that was hit pretty hard early on. We’ve seen how it’s serious,” he said, which may be different from students coming from less hard-hit places.

Daniel Irizarry, 20, and his parents, Dan and Lisa of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., were among the families wearing masks as they carried boxes and bags into dorms on the quiet, tree-lined campus, which is typically bustling on move-in days.

They arrived with Daniel’s typical dorm items, such as bedding and a flatscreen TV, along with additional must-haves for this year, including masks, hand sanitizer, bottled water and a fridge.

Daniel said students beginning the school year typically feel anxiety about their academic performance and the rigor of classes. “This year it was more about literally living on the campus,” he said. “I think the source of the anxiety was different but still obviously a lot of anxiety.”

His mother said she was impressed with the school’s plan for testing and the family is trying to treat this as a typical year.

While she said she feels particularly bad for the freshmen, sine it's such a different experience, she said many people coming from New York and Connecticut have lost family members and been hurt by the pandemic, so it’s better to keep safe.

Arcelus said the college has created an alert system with green, yellow, orange and red levels. Once the campus finishes quarantine, if the prevalence of COVID-19 is low, the college will open up opportunities for students to get together in person, while still requiring social distancing and masks.

He said the college is prepared for potential scenarios, such as needing to move to all remote learning if cases spike. It will monitor a host of variables in consultation with Hartford Healthcare and adjust alert levels and make decisions about what is open and operational.

“We have to be prepared for anything,” he said. “If there’s anything we’ve learned from COVID(-19), it’s that what’s going to happen tomorrow is not necessarily entirely predictable, and we have to be prepared for a variety of different circumstances.”

k.drelich@thedaycom

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