Students return to Middlebury surrounding senior week, sparking safety concerns

By Abigail Chang

Local residents spotted students on South Street, among other locations in town. (BARBARA MARLOW)

Students returned to Middlebury this month — many during “senior week,” a time usually dedicated to pre-graduation festivities and traditions — despite initial calls by the college that students vacate the town of Middlebury. Although a May 19 email from the Vice President of Student Affairs reaffirmed that returning violates state and college safety protocols, residents spotted students congregating and celebrating on campus and in town during the following days.

The Middlebury Police Department (MPD) has been in touch with the college about students returning to Middlebury, and Chief Thomas Hanley said the department notified the school about a gathering on college grounds on Saturday, May 23. MPD was first alerted to returning students after receiving multiple complaints from residents concerned about cars with out-of-state plates parked in their neighborhoods, according to Director of Media Relations Sarah Ray.

Matt Jennings, the editor of Middlebury Magazine, said that until last week, he occasionally saw a student or two walking around campus or into town, usually wearing masks and keeping their distance from others. So he was surprised to notice a group of 10 or 12 students, who were neither wearing masks nor maintaining six feet of distance from one another, taking photos on campus last week.

“I understand how hard this is for seniors, and I feel for the senior class, and I celebrated their senior celebration yesterday,” Jennings said in an interview with The Campus. “And I get the frustration some have, but equal frustration is when you see a small group — and I do think it’s a small group of the senior class — who are not behaving responsibly.”

Administrators sent an email to all students on May 19 warning of the risks that students returning to campus could pose to the community. The email cited Vermont’s successful but still delicate containment of the virus and warned that early returns could hinder a fall return for all students — a possibility that hinges on cooperation between the college, town of Middlebury and local health officials.

Ray said two college Department of Public Safety (DPS) officers reported seeing five small groups of students on Sunday, May 24 — with an average size of about seven students each — sitting on the football field during sunrise, following senior week tradition. The groups sat far apart from each other and agreed to maintain social distancing when the public safety officers asked them to do so, according to Ray.

Later on Sunday, the college heard from worried town residents about a crowd of students that had been seen walking down South Street and through Chipman Park by means of an email list that administrators were included on. Previously, the residents had discussed concerns over a surge in students around graduation week.

In a different email, retired Psychology Professor Barbara Hofer also wrote to President Patton and other Senior Leadership Group (SLG) members about having seen students walking around the neighborhood. The email claimed students were partying and later walked through the South Street and Chipman Park neighborhood in groups. Hofer’s email also claimed that 100 students had returned.

“To date, DPS does not have information that indicates there were any large parties or gatherings on our campus or in the Chipman Park area during that time,” Ray said in an email to The Campus. “We are continuing to reach out to concerned neighbors who may have observed or heard anything in the area.”

The students’ path followed a route seniors sometimes take on graduation morning, when many watch the sunrise from the football and lacrosse fields before walking into downtown Middlebury for breakfast.

Barbara Marlow and her husband Hugh Marlow ’57, who live on South Street, said residents of her neighborhood are accustomed to being awoken at 4:30 or 5 a.m. on commencement weekend when students process from the fields. They were not awoken this year, but heard about the incident from neighbors.

“It’s very quiet when there are no students around, and we love having the students come back and all the energy they bring,” she said, referring to the return of students each fall. “This [incident] did not feel like that to the people who were affected. It felt disrespectful, and it felt frightening because of the health concerns involved.”

For some, sightings of students who returned to town last week foreshadowed possible worries about the fall semester, raising concerns about the public health risk posed by the return of students in general.

“These seniors have made it evident that while the pandemic continues, the return of Middlebury college students to campus will represent a significant threat to the health and well-being of the Middlebury community,” Hofer wrote in her May 24 email.

Marlow sees the return as two-sided — many residents love the presence of college students, but now may not be the best time for the relatively-isolated town of Middlebury to host them, she said.

“I think people want the students back, love having students around, but are concerned that — with all that’s going on right now, with the worldwide health crisis, and all the cautions that they were given — if a few couldn’t handle just one or two days, what on earth are they going to do if they return to campus this fall, and how safe will the community be?” she said.

Many students, such as Marissa Baker ’20, have stayed in their off-campus residences since the cancellation of in-person classes. Baker noted that rising concern about returning students has negatively impacted off-campus students who have remained in town after the college evacuated students from campus, even while she and her two roommates have continued to follow social distancing guidelines.

“Only one person from the house goes to the grocery store. They go to the grocery store, they use a mask and gloves and sanitize before they come back in,” she said. “We cross the sidewalk when we see someone when we’re walking. We stay six feet apart for anyone that’s not living in the house.”

Baker said she knows that some students returned to Middlebury this month, but said that those she has spoken to quarantined when they arrived. She also described how the phenomenon of returning students places pressure on students who have lived in Middlebury since the end of in-person classes.

“There’s definitely been increased pressure on us to not come off as an out-of-stater or as a college student just because the town is getting worried that too many kids are coming back,” she said. “I’ve heard stories where, if you have too many out-of-state plates in your driveway, your neighbors might call the cops.”

Administrators have also taken steps to discourage students from returning to town and gather more information on those that did return. Besides the May 19 email, the college reached out to students’ parents and asked members of the Student Government Association (SGA) to appeal to their classmates.

On Sunday, members of the SLG wrote to the South Street neighborhood email group, acknowledging residents’ concerns and asking them to share information and photographs so the school could investigate the situation. The email mentioned that they will contact residents for their perspectives as the college develops a plan for next year. Barbara Marlow said she knows the administration is grappling with many difficult decisions as they determine what the fall will look like.

“I personally hope the college finds a way to reopen — I don’t want them to do it in an unsafe way, but they don’t want to do it in an unsafe way,” she said. “You know, I think everybody’s goal is the same. The town is certainly dependent on the college, and the college is dependent on the town, and, you know, they’re talking to each other and need to continue to do so. I’m sure they will. They always have.”