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More Connecticut College students living off campus during pandemic

As college students settle into new routines during the COVID-19 pandemic, some have swapped dormitory living for apartments and houses in New London County.

Connecticut College Dean of Students Victor Arcelus said approximately 173 students are living off campus this semester throughout the county.

“This is unique for the College, as under normal circumstances, we expect nearly all students to live on campus,” Arcelus said in an email to The Day.

Due to the pandemic, Arcelus said the school had to “thoughtfully de-densify our campus,” and repurposed River Ridge Apartments, Winchester Houses, 191 Mohegan Ave. and Abbey House so that they could be used for both isolation and quarantine housing for students. The college also had to plan for a higher on-campus enrollment, given that about 100 students who typically study abroad in the fall would be on campus.

Students who were approved to live off campus chose their own residences, and are scattered throughout the region, Connecticut College spokeswoman Tiffany Thiele said.

“Throughout this process, we were in close communication with the City of New London to keep them updated on our plans. There was general enthusiasm about the opportunity to have Conn students living in and around the city," Arcelus said.

Ann Stewart, a real estate agent with William Raveis, said she and other agents were contacted by Connecticut College to aid in the effort to find rental properties for students. She said it’s unclear how many of the students landed in New London, but she estimates 30 to 40.

Stewart said that, through email exchanges with students and their parents, they made clear they were looking for something other than one-bedroom apartments. She said the focus was on houses and preferably ones near the water.

“I told them I hope you have a Plan B,” Stewart said, a reference to the limited number of homes and possibility that some landlords might hesitate to rent to a group of college students.

So far, Stewart said she has not heard of any complaints.

Frank McLaughlin, who owns several rental properties in downtown New London, said he had several inquiries on the same day he advertised a four-bedroom home on Union Court. A group of four Connecticut College seniors moved in almost immediately.

“I was concerned because the neighborhood is not perfect,” McLaughlin said.

But a parent of one of the students arrived to check out the property and the group signed a one-year lease.

“So far, they’ve been great tenants. They’re all friends and set the place up. They’ve really created a home,” McLaughlin said.

Students tested twice weekly

The arrival of a small group of college students who are renting a home on a quiet street in Noank raised eyebrows among some neighbors, while others said they didn’t have an issue with the college students living there and understood the students needed a place to live this year.

Resident Michael Sirotnak said most of his neighbors are elderly and the houses are situated close together. At a time when COVID-19 infections are breaking out at colleges across the country, Sirotnak questioned the college’s decision to have some students find housing among the general public, rather than on campus or within the immediate vicinity.

“The college should be more considerate to the general public, especially the elderly. Noank Village is nowhere near Connecticut College,” Sirotnak said, adding that a large number of the village’s residents are over the age of 60.

Resident John Stamm said he did not have any issues yet with the students living in the neighborhood. “I hope they stay healthy, and I hope we stay healthy,” he said.

The students declined a request to be interviewed.

Groton Town police Chief L.J. Fusaro Jr. said his department has not received any complaints about college students not adhering to COVID-19 restrictions. Likewise in New London, police have had not fielded any complaints or heard of any problems.

Conn College is following a program of twice-a-week testing, as well as contact tracing.

"We take seriously our responsibility to keep our campus and the greater New London community as safe and healthy as possible," Arcelus said. "That is why all of our students, including students who live off campus, are tested twice weekly at our testing center. Faculty and staff working on campus are also tested each week. Rigorous testing and contact tracing allows us to quickly identify any positive cases and isolate those students — including those off-campus — immediately."

Arcelus said he met with all students approved to live off campus and outlined the college’s expectations and COVID-19 protocols, “making clear their responsibility to help keep our campus and the broader community in which they live healthy and safe.”

Students who don’t adhere to campus guidelines could be referred to the school’s conduct process.

Arcelus said students approved to live off campus can come to campus for classes, athletics and activities, including their assigned testing days. Those who are only studying remotely in the county are not allowed to come to campus, except to participate in the required twice weekly testing, access Student Health Services or use isolation housing, if it becomes necessary.

Alert Level Yellow

Concern over COVID-19 spreading at colleges and universities has become a national issue, with The New York Times tracking cases on campuses across the nation: "More than 150 colleges have reported at least 100 cases over the course of the pandemic, including dozens that have seen spikes in recent weeks as dorms have reopened and classes have started," the newspaper reported.

Conn College publishes regular reports on testing and positive cases. As of the week of Aug. 17, it reported four active cases of COVID-19 and 7,853 tests performed. The positivity rate puts the school’s color coded alert level at Yellow, or Level 2, which means “school operations need to be modified, though the number of individuals testing positive for COVID-19 is still manageable and contact tracing suggests that exposures are confirmed to a small number of people.”

A move to Alert Level 3, or Orange, would indicate a needed reduction in on-campus operations and parts of the school may shift into a “cautionary quarantine, to limit movement on campus and minimize in-person contact.” At Level 4, or Red, the college would consider on-campus remote learning with a possible transition to off-campus remote learning.

Dashboards provide numbers

Mitchell College had no positive cases of COVID-19 reported, as of Friday, spokesperson Britt Barry said.

At Mitchell College, 63% of students for fall 2020 are resident students living on campus, compared to 68% last fall, though the college does not have complete data to account for the change, Barry said.

The commuter students come from more than 50 towns in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and the college does not provide them with information about off-campus housing options, the college said in a news statement.

“All students — commuter and resident — signed the Mariner Promise, which states that students must be socially responsible by following public health guidelines when out in public,” the college said. “Continual reminders from Mitchell College to students via email and social media reinforce mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and other public health guidelines.”

Other higher-education institutions in the region, such as the University of Connecticut-Avery Point, are commuter campuses. Campus Director Annemarie Seifert has said the campus attracts graduates from about 60 high schools in the state, with New London County heavily represented. Typically, students come to campus from their parents’ houses, or about 12% live in apartments near the campus.

Avery Point students were tested for COVID-19 before they arrived on campus. The University of Connecticut’s online portal of testing results, reopen.uconn.edu/covid-dashboard, shows no positives among the 303 test results reported. Seifert has said, among other campus safety precautions, students are asked to take their temperature before coming to campus, wear masks and keep their distance from others.

City of Groton Mayor Keith Hedrick said he has not heard of any issues with the college students.

At UConn's main campus in Storrs, there have been 85 positive cases reported among the students living off campus as of Saturday. Students who test positive cannot return to campus until they are medically cleared. There have been 113 students living on campus who have tested positive. On Friday, UConn announced that students living in The Oaks on the Square apartments, which is off campus, will have to self-quarantine for 14 days because of an uptick in the number of positive cases there. The students will be forced to switch to virtual classes.

Across the street from Connecticut College, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy has had nine of the 1,100 cadets test positive for COVID-19 as of Friday. Commander Dave Milne, the Coast Guard's external affairs officer, said the positive tests came early — prior to June — and many of them were linked to a spring break visit to Spain. All of the students were asymptomatic and after a period of quarantine have returned to classes. All of the cadets live on the campus.

Milne said the academy has in place separate housing for the isolation or quarantine of students with symptoms or who have tested positive. Instruction at the academy is a mix of in-class and remote learning.

k.drelich@theday.com

g.smith@theday.com 

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