What happened to protecting the most vulnerable?

By Abigail Chang and Anna Metzler

Things are finally starting to feel normal again here at Middlebury. Proc is bustling, classrooms are full and Atwater residents are throwing ragers again. And with nearly 99% of on-campus students fully vaccinated, the days of universal twice-weekly testing, outdoor masking and close contacts have been relegated to the past — at least for now.

But for some, Middlebury’s high vaccination rate isn’t enough. For immunocompromised students, students with autoimmune disorders, for anyone who is at higher risk of contracting Covid-19, the rapid return to pre-pandemic times is not just a respite from strict policies. It’s also cause for anxiety.

Look. We’re not saying we want to return to the way things were last year, no one does. What we’re hoping is that the college will meet us somewhere in the middle — to make it possible for immunocompromised students and other high risk individuals to make informed decisions about their health.

And while we can’t speak for all members of the Middlebury community who are at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 or becoming severely ill, we wanted to share what’s been on our minds for the past few weeks.

We know the vaccine is effective. Even though there have been breakthrough cases, these have nearly all led to mild illness.

But we also know that for some people — including immunocompromised individuals — the vaccine is not as effective.

And we know there are people with autoimmune disorders or who are otherwise at higher risk of contracting Covid-19 here at Middlebury. You’re hearing from two of them right now.

So for Middlebury community members who are unsure how effective their two (or three) shots will be against the Delta variant, seeing packed dining halls and teeming classrooms and knowing that there is no campus-wide testing in place is a major cause for concern.

Middlebury admin, we’ll level with you. We’re pretty frustrated with the way high risk populations appear to have been overlooked this semester. It feels like we’re fending for ourselves on a campus where most people think they’re invincible.

Here’s what we propose.

The school is currently testing in-season athletes and unvaccinated students. It’s also offering optional “asymptomatic testing” on Mondays for those who have a known or suspected exposure to someone with Covid-19 or who have engaged in activities that put them at higher risk for contracting the virus.

But limited testing for small portions of Middlebury’s community isn’t enough to keep its most vulnerable members safe — and it’s unacceptable given what the college has said it’s capable of. (Not to mention, every other NESCAC is regularly testing students as of this writing.)

Midd, you’ve said you have the capacity to set up a regular testing program and that current conditions have not made it necessary. But how will you even know if and when testing becomes necessary considering the absence of campus-wide screening?

Testing should be proactive, not reactive.

And how will your decision not to test all students impact the community members who stand to lose the most?

If Middlebury still deems testing unnecessary, we ask that, at a minimum, the college supports students and is transparent about the presence of Covid-19 on campus.

While many professors have been incredibly understanding about students needing to miss class, some even advocating that anyone feeling even a little sick should take the day off, this has not been universal. We ask that all professors discourage sick students from coming to class until they’ve received a negative test, and provide a Zoom link or other resources to help prevent students from coming into class to avoid missing something important. 

We also ask that the college support students who make the choice to quarantine after a known exposure — even though CDC guidance doesn’t require it for those who are vaccinated — by offering a dean’s excuse to students who have to miss class.

The campus Covid-19 reporting dashboard was updated twice-weekly last semester, but it is now updated only once a week. 

The dashboard doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the real case counts, even contradicting other messages sent out by the college. A Sept. 16 email from Dean of Students Derek Doucet said that the college had identified positives — in the plural — since students had arrived, but only one case was displayed on the dashboard at the time.

On the same day, Vermont reported its highest number of positives in a single day since the start of the pandemic.

What we’re asking is for the college to give us more information. Regularly update the Covid-19 case dashboard — even if there really are no new positives on a given day. Give us updates on all cases in the on-campus college community. Let us know if there are contacts in quarantine.

We need this information because, even though our peers may not need to worry about getting severely ill if they contract Covid-19, not everyone can assume the same. We need this information so we can make our own decisions about what we need to do to stay safe — whether that’s double masking, avoiding crowded dining halls or seeking more regular testing off campus.

As much time as we’ve put into thinking about and writing this op-ed, what we really hope is that it will be obsolete by the time it’s printed.

We know we’re not the only ones feeling overlooked by current Covid-19 measures. Recently, we’ve seen posters around campus calling for similar measures.

We all want to get back to normal. But normal shouldn’t come at the expense of the students who have the worst prognosis.

Abigail Chang is a managing editor for The Campus and a member of the class of 2023. Anna Metzler is a member of the class of 2023.5.