The Other Pandemic

By Jason Mittell

Dear President Patton,

We are writing about an epidemic raging on our campus, directly impacting hundreds of students, faculty, staff and community members. It is not a virus nor a physical malady, but rather a sense of exhaustion, resignation and confusion that we see and feel each day. A year and a half of a pandemic has left many of us burnt out from a combination of overwork, grief, isolation and despair. While we looked to the return to an approximation of a “normal campus” this fall to provide respite and rejuvenation, instead this malaise seems to have deepened for many of us.

Most of the factors leading to these feelings are far beyond the control of a small college in Vermont, but one key ingredient is clearly a byproduct of choices made by our administration and Covid-19 leadership team: our shared confusion. After last academic year offered a notable success story that stood out amongst our peer institutions, achieved through a combination of diligence, planning and very good fortune, Middlebury has opted to forgo much of what made last year so successful despite the continued prevalence of Covid-19 in Vermont. And we simply do not understand why.

Unlike last year, and in contradiction to every other peer institution we know of, Middlebury has forgone comprehensive student testing this fall. It has also eliminated all on-site employee testing despite a scarcity of local testing availability (and has pushed a mail-order testing alternative that would take many days to process). We have no limits on indoor occupancy, and instead have stuffed our campus beyond the capacities of both our physical plant and the bandwidth of our overworked, under-resourced staff. We have imposed an indoor mask mandate that features major exceptions — visit any dining hall at mealtime — and seems to be unenforced beyond the immediate supervision of a classroom or work setting.

Instead, we have put all of our faith in universal vaccination to both reduce the number and severity of cases. While certainly this is the single most important action to protect both individuals and our community, it is insufficient. Many employees live with unvaccinated children, care for vulnerable elders, and/or have underlying health conditions that place them at higher risk for severe breakthrough cases. This is true for some of our students as well, as eloquently argued in a recent Campus op-ed. In short, it is quite rational to be concerned about breakthrough cases even on a fully vaccinated campus.

The best way to counter such concerns is through more information. Thus, as professionals who have dedicated our careers to expanding knowledge and deepening understanding, we are truly mystified why the college has actively chosen to know less about the status of Covid-19 on campus than we did last year. The choice to restrict testing has been justified as complying with the Vermont Department of Health (which itself is minimizing mitigations over the objections of many experts and its own staff members). A recent email has shrugged off comparisons with our peer schools as irrelevant due to different contexts in other states — despite the fact that Vermont case counts are currently higher than nearly all other states with NESCAC schools.

Thus we write to advocate that Middlebury takes simple actions to combat our lack of knowledge, all of which worked last year. Expanding broad surveillance testing would give us a true sense of Covid-19 prevalence on campus, rather than our current state where we imagine each cough or sneeze as our first glimpse of an emerging outbreak. Including employees in on-campus testing would ensure consistent access and faster results, demonstrating a concern for many of us in the community who bear the most risk. Strengthening communications to regularly present case counts and testing rates would help us know where we stand now, rather than a week ago. Promoting honesty with the community when exposures have occurred would build trust, rather than telling faculty to hide news of exposure, as recently suggested in an email and told to individual faculty members.

Would implementing these measures reduce the spread of Covid-19 on campus this fall? We honestly don’t know. But would it help combat the epidemic of confusion, frustration and distrust that is currently raging across campus? Without a doubt.

Sent by Jason Mittell, on behalf of the AAUP Executive Committee and Working Conditions Committee, comprised of 20 Middlebury employees.

Editor’s Note: Jason Mittell is the faculty advisor to The Middlebury Campus.