Community Conversations: Encouraging Signs

This week's guests discussed easing COVID-19 restrictions this summer and fall.

Watch the May 26 Community Conversations webcast with Provost Joseph Helble, COVID-19 Task Force Co-Chair Lisa Adams, Dean of the College Kathryn Lively, and Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology and Allen House professor.

As more members of the Dartmouth community report completing their COVID-19 vaccinations, and as the cases of COVID-19 continue to decline on campus and regionally, students, faculty, and staff can look forward to campus restrictions easing, Provost Joseph Helble told viewers during this week's Community Conversations webcast.

"The bottom line is that more flexibility lies in our future as we look ahead to fall term," Helble said, noting that Dartmouth has seen no new positive COVID-19 tests among students for the past nine days, and only two cases in the past two weeks. "This is a very encouraging sign."

The policy changes began last Friday, with the reduction of indoor distancing requirements from 6 feet to 3 feet for all activities except eating, exercise, and performance—permitting students living on campus to host up to two on-campus residents in their dorm rooms. Groups of nine people or fewer can gather outdoors or indoors in approved spaces without permission, and the approval process for gatherings of 10 to 25 people has been simplified.

Among the other changes to come should these encouraging trends continue, Helble noted:

  • Beginning tomorrow, Novack Café, the 1902 Room, and Reiss Hall, all in Dartmouth Library's Baker-Berry Library will be open for studying 24 hours a day. (Masking and social-distancing guidelines still apply.)
     
  • Effective June 1, Dartmouth expects to move to the "less limited" phase of its five-phase reopening plan, and to move to some more-flexible laboratory policies.
     
  • Beginning July 1, on-campus students, faculty, and staff who have been vaccinated will only be required to participate in surveillance testing once a month, and Helble anticipates that the daily temperature and self-assessment screening (TSA) will no longer be required for anyone. (Unvaccinated people will still need to participate in twice-weekly surveillance testing.)
     
  • Effective Aug. 1, Helble expects, the campus will start transitioning to the "full access" phase of reopening.

Helble encouraged all on-campus community members to attend the final Thursdays Together (formerly Tuesdays Together) gathering tomorrow. Refreshments from Umpleby's will be served outdoors on Collis Porch, the Anonymous Hall lawn, and the Gold Coast lawn for an hour beginning at 1 p.m.

Such gatherings help cultivate "that sense of connection, even for just a few moments, that does so much to define this incredible Dartmouth community," he said.

Helble was joined this week by COVID-19 Task Force co-chair Lisa Adams, MED '90; Dean of the College Kathryn Lively; and Janice McCabe, an associate professor of sociology and the house professor of Allen House, for a conversation moderated by Vice President for Communications Justin Anderson.

Asked about plans to resume first-year trips for the incoming Class of 2025, Lively said, "Yes—there will be trips. I can't tell you what they'll look like, but there will be more information to come."

One challenge for resuming the student-led trips program: The pandemic disrupted how organizers pass the leadership baton from one class to the next, Lively said.

To make up for that gap in knowledge, Dartmouth has hired the last trips directorate, or student organizing committee, "to come back and help in this leadership moment that we're currently rebuilding from ground zero," Lively said. "And we've already started to accept applications to become trip leaders."

Asked about Dartmouth's COVID-19 vaccination policy, Helble said Dartmouth faculty and staff should anticipate that vaccinations will be mandatory this fall, as they will be for students returning to campus, with the exception of those who receive medical or religious waivers.

"Details of policy for employees are very different from details of policy for students, but it is our expectation and, in many ways, intention, to be moving forward with a policy that requires vaccination" for faculty and staff, Helble said.

Adams said that "vaccine availability is no longer a barrier—there are vaccines available at pharmacies (including the CVS pharmacy in Hanover) and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and doctor's offices."

Currently, more than half of all on-campus students and employees have reported completing their vaccinations, up from about 30% two weeks ago. "That's a rate of progress over the past two weeks I hope will continue as we push toward 70% and beyond," Helble said.

He encouraged all community members to report their vaccination records promptly, through Dick's House, for students, and through Axiom, Dartmouth's occupational medicine partner, for faculty and staff. This information is "one gauge of moving towards more flexible campus operating conditions," he said.

In response to a question about staff returning to campus, Helble said it's likely that some form of remote work will "remain part of our culture going forward" for staff members who don't regularly need to have face-to-face interaction with students.

"We're going through an exercise over the course of the summer working with managers and surveying the campus to get a sense of what can be done effectively and efficiently working from home," he said. Regardless, "faculty will be in the laboratories, seminar rooms, and classrooms with students."

Asked if Dartmouth's masking and social-distancing mandates were too conservative, given the recent relaxation of the Centers for Disease Control guidelines, Adams said she expects social distancing will no longer be required in the fall, given the increasing rate of vaccinations, but noted that the town of Hanover still has a mask mandate.

"There's a tension in how to take national, state, and local guidelines and apply them to our residential living setting on a college campus," she said. "We're trying to balance how we make our own policies and also obviously abide by the local and state guidance."

McCabe spoke about the role Dartmouth's six house communities have played in maintaining social continuity for students during the pandemic, including organizing "more wellness and social-justice-related programming to respond to student concerns," she said. The houses have sponsored a variety of remote and in-person activities this year, and will play a role in helping the community transition back to a full residential experience this fall.

"One thing that's really special about the house communities is that they're a place for students to return to no matter what," McCabe said. "It's a place you're always welcome."

Helble acknowledged that the pandemic will make it challenging for Dartmouth to provide on-campus housing to all undergraduates in the fall, given how many will likely plan to be in-residence. The priority for housing will be given to members of the Class of 2025 and the Class of 2024, he said, and other details will be announced in the coming weeks. "I'm going to ask for students and their parents to be patient" as administrators work through the problem, he said.

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 broadcast is scheduled for June 9.

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

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