Vassar launches Phase 2 amid zero coronavirus cases

In a recent email to the student body, President Elizabeth Bradley confirmed that as of Sept. 10, Vassar reported zero active cases of COVID-19 on campus with no students currently in isolation. While Vassar reached a peak of 14 active cases just weeks ago, this recent decrease allowed the College to transition into Phase Two of its campus experience plan on Sept. 8.

Masks and social distancing are still mandatory, but select facilities such as the library and lounges have opened, and gatherings approved by Campus Activities can take place outside with up to 25 people. Indoor gatherings are allowed with a maximum of ten people, or fewer if room capacity requires a lower number of individuals present. Dining is still take-out only, but local vendors will come three times a week to sell their food on campus. 

Bradley noted in her Sept. 13 email that she hopes this low infection rate can continue as Vassar begins to slowly ease up on rules.

Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana credited Vassar’s low case count to the small size of the campus. “Our size—1,000 acres for about 2,000 students—and our location have been an asset. Vassar is a relatively small institution, located in a well-defined space, which is very different from large universities located in urban centers, for example. This provides protection for those of us on campus as well as members of the community,” he stated.

Vassar’s success coincides with other colleges and universities’ struggles to keep infection rates low. Many have had to cancel in-person classes and send students home after the virus spread exponentially amongst students. After students partied off-campus and came into contact with an infected student, Marist College suspended multiple students and placed all of the residents from one dormitory under quarantine. Larger universities have found containing the virus especially difficult: The University of Notre Dame transitioned to two weeks of remote learning for undergraduates after 147 of the 927 students tested were positive just eight days after beginning classes. 

Several of Vassar’s peer institutions, such as Smith College and Pomona College, chose to remain remote this semester. One college with a similar approach to Vassar’s is Colby College, which is close in student population size to Vassar. They implemented a 10 million dollar plan that allows them to test students three times a week and staff twice weekly.  It has been successful: As of Sep. 14, they have administered over 27,000 tests, have zero active cases and no students in quarantine. 

While schools such as Vassar and Colby have achieved stable infection rates, Alamo-Pastrana noted that this is not a time to defy social distancing regulations. “To continue our successful trajectory as a campus, all of us will have to continue to adhere strictly to the health and safety protocols—to wear masks and maintain social distancing—and follow the enhanced guidelines,” he said. 

Alamo-Pastrana also expressed concerns about students becoming careless because of low risk on campus. He shared, “One of the biggest concerns we have is that some people on campus will become complacent and fail to adhere to the guidelines that have been established, triggering an outbreak of new cases of COVID-19.”

The next step for Vassar will be Phase Three of reopening which is projected to begin Sept. 26. This would entail limited off-campus travel for select reasons such as class trips or research projects. Alamo-Pastrana emphasized that these plans are dependent on Vassar’s COVID-19 case count remaining very low, and that they are subject to change as the administration evaluates the campus health situation. 

However, Alamo-Pastrana again warned of becoming too cavalier, explaining that COVID-19 cases could very quickly take a turn for the worse. “We need to be mindful of the fact that nothing makes us immune to the dangers of this virus. So while there are some factors that have helped us, we need to remember that we are as vulnerable as those who have seen outbreaks and shutdowns,” he said. 

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