Bennington College outlines plans for reopening

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BENNINGTON — Bennington College has released a detailed plan for returning students and staff members that includes comprehensive testing for COVID-19; staggered arrival times, restrictions for visitors from the community; reimagined living, office and academic spaces on campus to allow distancing; ongoing prevention and containment measures and expanded distance learning opportunities.

College President Laura Walker, Oceana Wilson, acting dean of the college and head of the school's COVID-19 task force, and other officials gave a presentation of the preparedness plan during the Select Board's meeting Monday.

Among steps to prevent or contain COVID-19 on the North Bennington campus will include testing for most of the expected 520 students and the college staff upon arrival to the campus and again in seven days.

Wilson said about 50 students are already living on campus. Those who must quarantine to meet Vermont's requirements for arrivals from other states are scheduled to arrive over Aug. 19-21, while those who can quarantine where they live will arrive on Aug. 31.

Testing, temps

During the semester, students and others who are asymptomatic will be tested on a rolling basis, Wilson said, and will have daily temperature checks and must agree to a daily self-check for possible COVID-19 symptoms.

In addition, those students found to have a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher must isolate themselves and have a COVID-19 test, while faculty or staff members with a fever will isolate in their residences.

If a student tests positive, they will lodged in separate housing until they can return to normal activities. All contact tracing for positive cases on campus will be conducted by the Vermont Department of Health.

The school anticipates that roughly two thirds of total campus housing capacity will be occupied in the fall, with the remaining students studying remotely. There were about 700 students on campus last year prior to the epidemic.

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Any student who leaves campus to visit a high COVID caseload area outside the state will not be permitted to return this term, instead finishing their course load via remote learning. Students are advised to limit their off-campus travel.

New president at helm

Walker, who began as college president just over a week ago, told the Select Board during the videoconference meeting that she wanted "to express my commitment to supporting and deepening the college's commitment to the community."

At present, she said, "the most important thing is our reopening plan and what we are doing."

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Walker was named in June to replace former President Mariko Silver, who left in 2019 to become president and CEO of the Henry Luce Foundation.

Wilson and Walker said the college plans to work with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and state Department of Health officials in working to avoid or contain COVID-19 cases on the campus.

They said the college also intends to be transparent in reporting any cases and related information on the college website.

The campus buildings will remain off-limits to community visitors, Wilson said, but the campus trails and groups will be open. Visitors are asked to wear a mask while on the campus grounds.

In answer to a question about testing capabilities from board member Bruce Lee-Clark, Dr. Randy Anselmo, the college's director of health services, said the college is in contact with several testing labs and considering all options to ensure an adequate supply of test kits. Anselmo acknowledged that a surge in demand is likely when schools begin to reopen in the fall, but he said kit manufacturers also are "ramping up capacity."

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Travel restrictions

Other aspects of the school's COVID-19 Preparedness Plan include that out-of-state guests follow Vermont travel restrictions,

Physical space on campus also has been re-imagined in accordance with state distancing guidelines the officials said. That means classes will be held in larger rooms, with more space between each person; common areas have been changed to prevent crowding; students will reside in single-occupancy rooms whenever possible; and one-on-one advisory meetings with students will happen remotely or outside of faculty offices.

The on-campus faculty and staff population has been calibrated to comply with social distancing and capacity requirements; it is designed to be flexible and adaptive as needs change.

Bennington College also has accelerated plans to reach more students regionally and around the world, the officials said.

The school recently launched Bennington+, a suite of courses for learners at every stage of their academic lives.

Initial offerings includes Bennington Unbound, new creative and critical writing courses offered by renowned faculty members of the Bennington Writing Seminars; courses on social and environmental issues offered by faculty at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action, and greater access to a range of courses across the broader Bennington undergraduate curriculum.

For now, all courses are offered remotely. Vermont high school juniors and seniors may be eligible for dual enrollment reimbursement.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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