Middlebury College has shifted to remote instruction and postponed in-person events for the rest of the semester because of a rise in COVID-19 cases on campus.
The small liberal arts school in Vermont said Thursday evening that 34 new cases have been confirmed on campus, bringing the total number to 49 active student cases and one employee case. Those numbers were updated Friday afternoon to include three more positive tests, bringing the total of active cases on campus to 53.
On Friday, the last day of in-person classes before finals begin next week, instruction was shifted. Athletic events, performances, and other in-person events will be held online, cancelled, or postponed. In the e-mail Thursday, school officials urged students who can return home early for break to do so.
“Given the timing of this increase, coinciding with the end of the fall semester and imminent student departures, we have decided to move immediately to remote instruction and postpone in-person events,” the e-mail said.
The 34 cases reported Thursday evening appear to be connected, school officials said in the e-mail, occurring in clusters of students who socialize together. That total smashes Middlebury’s previous high mark of cases reported in a single day, which was four.
“This is a very recent development,” said Sarah Ray, the college’s director of media relations. “We had 25 total cases for the entire fall semester as of Monday, December 6. This week cases rose slightly but it was Thursday, December 9, when we saw a noticeable increase.”
More than 99 percent of students are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and many have already received booster doses, Ray said.
The sudden switch to remote instruction comes as Vermont, the most vaccinated state in the nation, deals with a record-breaking surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The state reported 740 new cases on Friday, the highest number it’s ever recorded, according to the Vermont Department of Public Health. In Addison County, where Middlebury is located, 51 new cases were reported Friday, and cases have climbed 56 percent over the last two weeks, according to the DPH.
Middlebury’s outbreak “is likely due to the high prevalence of COVID-19 in Vermont and the region right now and the fact that the Delta variant is very contagious,” Ray said.
The school said it is still receiving results from COVID-19 tests taken earlier this week, and contact tracing is underway.
Middlebury, unlike many other colleges, has made testing for the virus optional for students except for those who are unvaccinated, travel, or participate in athletics. The policy has sparked controversy on campus, as some students and faculty members contend that it leaves the school vulnerable to outbreaks that may not be immediately detected.
“I think that the decision to not do surveillance testing for students to do testing for employees, was a really bad decision,” Jason Mittell, a professor of film and media culture and American studies, said in a phone interview. “And it was one that the administration got pushback on from people throughout the fall. And they stuck to it. And I really hope that they change for the spring.”
Middlebury officials say they consult regularly with the state’s DPH and that the testing program focuses on identifying cases among symptomatic students.
“We’ve conducted 7,000 tests so far this semester with a focus on symptomatic testing,” Ray said. “Testing has always been available for students who wanted a test. Testing was expanded prior to the Thanksgiving break and for the remainder of the term.”
Students have chosen to be tested throughout the semester sporadically, Mittell said, though he has heard anecdotally that some have gone more frequently in recent weeks as cases on campus began a gradual rise.
To date, 7,261 tests have been processed on campus since students arrive on campus in late August, and 63 have come back positive, according to the school’s COVID-19 data dashboard. The total student population at Middlebury is 2,937.
Last year, he said, everyone that came to campus, including faculty and staff, were tested sporadically based on exposure risk. On-campus testing has not been available to faculty and staff this semester.
“There’s been a lot of concern,” said Mittell. “A lot of faculty members took extra precautions on their own because they felt like the college’s precautions were insufficient.”
Around 750 students were tested Friday and the state’s DPH is offering an additional 1,000 testing appointments over the next four days at nearby locations that are available to staff and faculty, Ray said.