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After a week of more than 170 COVID-19 cases, Connecticut College rolls back some restrictions

New London — Connecticut College downgraded its COVID-19 alert level Tuesday to transition to in-person classes and allow athletic practices, after a week that included more than 170 students testing positive, remote classes and closed campus spaces, and a visit from a controversial writer who decried the restrictions.

Staff and student employment will transition back to in-person, clubs can hold meetings and activities outdoors, and up to four people can gather inside and "roughly 15" outside. Dining services will remain grab and go.

Last Tuesday, the college shifted from Alert Level 1-Green to Alert Level 3-Orange after more than 50 students tested positive for the coronavirus, and effective this Tuesday, the college is operating at Alert Level 2-Yellow.

Dean of Students Victor Arcelus said in a message to students that he spoke with a representative from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Monday.

According to the college's COVID-19 Dashboard, updated Tuesday at 12:30 p.m., 169 students and one employee tested positive the week of Sept. 6-12, and nine students have tested positive since Monday.

Arcelus has said in updates over the past week that students tested positive through both rapid tests, known as antigen tests, and the PCR tests all students must take twice a week.

According to the CDC, antigen tests are generally less sensitive than PCR tests and perform best on symptomatic people. College spokesperson Tiffany Thiele said if a student tests positive via a rapid test, they are isolated and required to obtain a PCR test to confirm accuracy.

Arcelus said last week that students were in isolation on campus, at a hotel or at home. He told The Day in August that Conn has less isolation housing than last year but has agreements with area hotels, should more be necessary.

Thiele said Tuesday there have been no hospitalizations to date and "most students have had generally mild symptoms." She said 98% to 99% of students who tested positive are fully vaccinated, which is about the same as the overall vaccination rate. The vaccine is mandatory for students unless they have an approved exemption.

Thiele said students were required to submit their vaccination record by July 1, and Student Health Services staff reviewed vaccination cards to confirm authenticity.

Given the vaccination rate, the volume of positive tests has come as a shock to many.

On an FAQ page, state Department of Public Health epidemiologists hypothesize that student gatherings at a local bar and in dorm rooms led to "large numbers of people in overcrowded spaces speaking loudly in close proximity. Given that the crowds included symptomatic people, the virus spread to others at a level that overwhelmed the protective capacity of the vaccine."

Jennifer Muggeo, deputy director of Ledge Light Health District, which includes New London, said Ledge Light is working with DPH and the college on contact tracing and mitigation efforts.

She said as we learn more about the delta variant, it's not as surprising as it once was to see coronavirus cases among the fully vaccinated. "The vaccines are still effective at keeping people from getting very, very ill and dying, and that is our goal, so we still encourage everyone to get vaccinated."

How some students feel about the lockdown

When Conn College junior Mia Nelson learned of all the cases popping up, she got nervous and decided to go home to North Stonington. A rapid test she took Thursday came back positive, and she's now isolating at home.

Nelson said she had a bad fever at first, got a runny nose, and lost her sense of taste and smell, but she's been doing better. She thinks she got the coronavirus from students on her floor who tested positive.

"I'm glad that the school has been taking it very seriously, because I think that it's not just about the students; it's about the faculty and staff who are older or have children who are under 12 and can't be vaccinated, and it's about the immunocompromised students who go to school," she said.

Some students who didn't test positive shared their thoughts Monday on the handling of the outbreak and quarantine.

Sophomore Zolenge Bordwin said they and everyone they know understand and comply with the regulations "because we know that there are people on campus who are immunocompromised."

"It is a bummer that we're in remote classes right now, and I wish I could go to parties like a normal college student," freshman Eliot Grear said. But he said he agreed with the administration "that we gotta keep being restrictive until things calm down."

"It's for the greater good," sophomore Owen Labombard said, noting that students knew they'd be coming to the school in a pandemic.

Some students criticized the way the college brought students back to campus.

"We got here and the restrictions were minimal. The messaging was really unclear. They were basically saying, 'If you're vaccinated you're good,'" senior Grace Rathbun said. She doesn't think the college is taking accountability.

Similarly, sophomore Lyndon Inglis said the college presented the onboarding process as normal, and if students think things are normal, of course they're going to act a certain way. Last year was different, with classes starting out remotely for more than a week.

Arcelus had told students in an Aug. 25 update that the college "is not permitting indoor activities off-campus where masks would not reasonably be worn (e.g. restaurants and bars)."

"I have mixed feelings about it. I think some things are keeping us safe, but some things seem excessive," junior Ellie Wagner said. As an example, she said, "Nobody is getting COVID sitting in a class in a mask." She was also mad about the college's initial decision to close the library to students; it reopened Monday.

Wagner said she likes the mask requirement and regular testing, "because we found out really fast that there was an outbreak."

Junior Miles Griffin said that since the college attributed the spread to bars and cars, in addition to socializing in dorm rooms and apartments, he doesn't see why classes had to go virtual on Zoom.

Michael Tracey visit draws crowd

The college's "cautionary quarantine" drew the attention and ire of Michael Tracey, a commentator who writes a newsletter on the subscription newsletter app Substack and has more than 200,000 Twitter followers.

In a post Friday, he called the college's reaction an "insane 'Australia-style' lockdown." He argued the biweekly testing policy was "ridiculously overbearing" and was "of course going to turn up some positive results."

He shared on Twitter a Change.org petition titled, "Restore Normalcy and Life At Connecticut College with a 99% Vaccination Rate." It garnered 970 supporters before it closed, though it's unclear how many signers were students, parents, alumni or others who found the page through Tracey.

The page said "Support Conn Athletes" started the petition, which asked the college to let students play sports and said, "Of course, we have to isolate students who test positive, but you are putting almost 2000 lives on hold."

On Sunday, Tracey announced he would go to Conn College on Monday afternoon to deliver remarks at Tempel Green. The college emailed him ahead of time to say it is temporarily restricting outside visitors from coming to campus.

Thiele said in a statement Tuesday, "We welcome guest speakers who bring vigorous debate to the community when they follow our established practices. We expect that the protocols that the College has put in place will successfully and promptly reduce the positive cases of COVID-19 on campus. At that time, we will be able to return to welcoming guest speakers when they are invited by our students or faculty in accordance with normal campus practices."

Tracey went to Tempel Green, as did a Day reporter and photographer. Followed by a group of students filming, campus security directed Tracey out the front gate and down Route 32; he ended up speaking for more than an hour and a half on the sidewalk opposite Deshon Street.

He questioned whether students are OK paying $80,000 "to be parented by some idiotic dean" and if they're going to accept a permanent crisis, and repeatedly invoked the government response to 9/11.

Tracey said he came because he's gotten "dozens" of messages "from people who have strong criticisms of the policy that you're all now subject to" but say they can't speak out because they will be subject to disciplinary action, social repercussions and problems with their athletic programs. He also voiced concern about similar policies on other campuses.

Some responses students shouted out: "Why are you here speaking for other people?" "You don't even go here!"

It's unclear how many supported his message, as his detractors were more vocal, but those standing closer to Tracey engaged in dialogue at some points.

At most, there were about 100 students gathered around, though the orange alert level in effect at the time limited outdoor gatherings to three students.

e.moser@theday.com

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