Community Conversations: A Preview of Winter Term

Provost Joseph Helble and his guests spoke about recent pandemic trends.

Watch the Oct. 14 Community Conversations webcast with Provost Joseph Helble, COVID-19 Task Force Co-Chair Lisa Adams, Assistant Professor of Medicine Antonia Altomare, and Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin.

"Students, faculty, and staff should anticipate that winter term will operate exactly like fall term—albeit with slightly different weather conditions and no outdoor tents," Provost Joseph Helble said during this week's Community Conversations webcast.

The online forum is designed to let community members hear directly from campus and community leaders about Dartmouth's priorities, decisions, and operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Viewers may have noticed a few technical glitches this week that briefly delayed the start of the show. Vice President for Communications Justin Anderson offered apologies for these delays as he fielded viewer questions for Helble and his guests, who this week included COVID-19 Task Force Co-Chair Lisa Adams, associate dean for global health and an associate professor of medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine; Antonia Altomare, an infectious disease specialist and an assistant professor of medicine at Geisel; and Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin.

In previewing campus operations for the winter, Helble said, "We anticipate offering the opportunity for residential education to approximately half of our undergraduate student body, same as fall term and consistent with the integrated full-year operational plan President Hanlon and I announced on June 29."

Classes will likely start on Thursday, Jan. 7—a few days later than normal—for undergraduates, graduate students in the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, and students at Thayer School of Engineering, he said.

The calendar changes, which will also affect the start of spring term, will be finalized by Oct. 28.

The later start to the term "would enable these students to travel after the holidays, would avoid having large numbers of students in residence halls in quarantine over the New Year's holiday, and would enable us to have the necessary staffing on campus to manage comprehensive arrival week testing," Helble said.

In a message to undergraduates this week, Dean of the College Kathryn Lively announced that enough students previously approved for winter-term residence had changed their plans to allow for the creation of a waitlist for students in the Classes of 2023 and above. (Members of the Class of 2024 will take classes remotely.)

Students must confirm their interest in living on campus by emailing dean.of.the.college@dartmouth.edu by 5 p.m. (EST) Friday, Oct. 16, with the subject line "waitlist" and their Dartmouth ID number in the body of the message.

Helble acknowledged that this deadline may pose challenges for student-athletes, as they will not know the status of winter and spring sports—decisions being made by Ivy League presidents and athletic directors collectively—until later this year.

'This Is Not a Time to Step Back'

The policies of COVID-19 testing, mask-wearing, physically distancing, and limited group sizes will likely remain the same for the foreseeable future, reflecting how seriously Dartmouth is taking trends showing that virus transmission is increasing locally, regionally, and nationally.

"New disease case counts in our Dartmouth community are exceedingly low, but are not zero," he said. "This is not a time to step back from the measures that have helped us navigate this global pandemic well thus far."

Adams described Dartmouth's isolation and quarantine protocols in light of the recent announcement that a cluster of three students living off campus had tested positive for COVID-19. (Isolation is for those who have tested positive or show symptoms of infection; quarantine is for those who may have been exposed to the virus.)

There are currently 15 students and 23 members of the faculty and staff in isolation or quarantine, and five active cases of COVID-19, according to the Dartmouth Together COVID-19 Dashboard.

Students on and off campus who need to isolate may use campus facilities set aside for the purpose, Adams said, though off-campus students may stay in their own residences if they have access to private bedrooms and bathrooms and the ability to have food delivered. The Dartmouth Health Services checks in on students in isolation daily and offers mental health services.

"We really have appreciated our students' good spirits and compliance with the strict isolation practices as part of their commitment to protecting their roommates, their floormates, and the broader Dartmouth and local communities," Adams said.

A number of questions sent to the webcast were from parents who wanted to know how many students had been asked to leave this fall for not following Dartmouth's COVID-19 community health and safety guidelines—which all students approved to be on campus this fall agreed to follow before the start of the term. Anderson said Dartmouth doesn't disclose that information so as not to violate students' privacy.

"It can lead to targeting and it can lead to people trying to figure out who has been asked to leave campus and why," he said. "We truly think that it would be unfair to the privacy and confidentiality of the students who have been asked to leave."

Town-Gown Cooperation

Altomare, who until recently served as hospital epidemiologist for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, talked about recent increases in New Hampshire's test positivity rate.

"New Hampshire has always been in the 1% range, and when you get down into more granular detail we are actually increasing," she said. "The most recent percentage is 1.3%. That doesn't seem a lot, but 0.3% more in a state our size actually means a lot."

Griffin described how this trend has been playing out in the community, which has seen four positive tests in the local school system in the past week. 

"The good news is we have been working very closely with the College since early March," Griffin said.

Although there were some concerns in the community about Dartmouth students returning to campus in the fall, Griffin says is pleased with how seriously students have been taking public health measures like mask-wearing and physical distancing.

"The college students are taking a leadership role and particularly modeling for our high school and middle school students what they need to be doing," Griffin said.

Helble acknowledged that Dartmouth life during the pandemic has been hard on everyone, but he remains optimistic.

"We will get through this," he said. "And we will be better for it, having done so as a community."

Community Conversations is a live production of Dartmouth's Media Production Group and the Office of Communications that airs on selected Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. The next webcast is scheduled for Oct. 28.

Past episodes are available on the Community Conversations site, which includes call-in numbers for those who want to listen to the show without video. Find out how to watch or listen to the live webcast.

For the most recent information on Dartmouth's response to the pandemic, visit the COVID-19 website.

Hannah Silverstein can be reached at hannah.silverstein@dartmouth.edu.