Navigating the pandemic with careful planning and community responsibility

When college students returned to campuses nationwide for fall semester 2020, headlines soon told stories of outbreaks and second thoughts. But the University of Vermont, like our home state, has weathered the last several months with a far lighter COVID-19 impact than most, thanks to diligent institutional planning, student and community commitment, and a measure of good fortune.

As campus virus test results were updated publicly each week—consistently registering over 99.5 percent negativity—an urge to celebrate was quickly followed by an equal urge to knock on wood. (Indeed, with the weeks-long path from copy deadline to mailbox delivery of a print magazine, the situation may have shifted since this was written. For the latest: check

Still, the picture at UVM for continuing on-campus education in the midst of a pandemic was about as bright in mid-October as even the sunniest optimist might have envisioned last spring. Enrollment numbers were down, but not dramatically, with approximately two hundred students choosing to defer admission or take a gap year in the middle of their studies. 4,266 students lived on-campus, most of them in shared rooms; 4,875 lived off-campus in Greater Burlington; and  1,444 undergraduates elected to study remotely from their hometowns.

Courses were delivered in a variety of modes—in-person with students and professors masked and socially distanced; remotely; and a hybrid of the two.

Soon after spring 2020 instruction shifted from in-person to remote last March, President Suresh Garimella formed the UVMStrong Fall 2020 Advisory Committee. Chaired by Gary Derr, vice president for operations and safety, the group of staff and faculty leaders drew on expertise across campus, also working in sync with state and city officials.
President Garimella notes that the success of the fall semester has been, to great extent, due to acting on UVM core principles—such as integrity, innovation, and responsibility—affirmed in the university’s Our Common Ground statement. “This moment has demanded the best in us, every one of us, as we’ve come together to find our way forward in the face of daunting challenge,” Garimella says. “Our commitment to community, our commitment to caring for one another, is powerful.”

The UVMStrong group identified key priorities, as swift planning and implementation began around myriad issues: establishing a fast and reliable regimen for virus testing; retooling classrooms and alternative campus spaces for socially distanced in-person teaching; bolstering and enhancing the technological infrastructure for the demands of remote teaching and learning; developing safe approaches to campus dining and residential life; and reinforcing safe behavior in regard to masking, social distancing, and personal hygiene.

Building off of the mid-stream transition to remote teaching during spring semester, faculty retooled their courses and delivery modes in preparation for the fall semester, with many exploring ways to connect their subject matter to the moment.

Without students committing to safe and responsible behavior, all of the planning would be for naught. The Green and Gold Promise put that commitment into words, and when students returned, the vast majority put those words into action. (Anecdotal observation: the percentage of mask wearers in Burlington rose dramatically with students’ return, though Gov. Scott’s statewide mask mandate had gone into place a full month earlier.)

socially distnaced class indoors

The beautiful events space of the Jack and Shirley Silver Pavilion at UVM Alumni House, right, was repurposed as a classroom with room to learn while safely socially distanced. Pictured: Professor Jonathan Huener’s “Modern Europe” history course. Photograph by Andy Duback.

Provost Patricia Prelock, in frequent communication with the campus community throughout the semester, cheered faculty and staff efforts to adapt to the evolving situation and spurred students to keep up the good work. “We are serving as a health and safety model for the entire nation,” Prelock wrote in September. “I am incredibly proud of you, and I hope you are proud of yourselves.” 
One Burlington resident shared this note with UVM leaders: “I have been dazzled by the responsible and respectful behavior of the UVM community since the semester began. Both on campus and in nearby neighborhoods, students regularly mask up. Thank you for a wonderful start to the new year.”

Fall 2020 is a semester with a decided difference, no doubt. There are no big games under the lights at Virtue Field, but the varsity soccer squads keep at practice; there are no group assignments being discussed over coffee in the Davis Center, but Henderson’s still serves the hot brew and students still find a place to study in DC. On a sunny September morning, drawing class students sketch Old Mill with a perspective from the Green; skateboarders flash down College Street; Mark Starrett’s horticulture classes tour the campus flora. Masked and socially distanced, campus life goes on.

Pearl Stuart, a first-year student in the music business and technology major, notes that the social opportunities are more limited with fewer in-person classes and other safety measures, but the connections she’s already built are strong. “Now that I’m here, I’m glad I came,” she says. “The friends I’ve made are amazing, and I know I just have to trust the process.” It’s not hard to imagine the alumni essays that might appear in publications like this one forty years from now, reflections on an interlude that was profound and formative in its challenge.

As Thanksgiving approaches, the on-campus part of the semester will end, with students completing a week of classes remotely, then taking finals from home. Looking ahead to spring, the fall semester range of instruction formats will continue. Classes are scheduled to begin on February 1, continuing (without a spring break) to May 11, then followed by final exams May 13-18.


Thomas Weaver