‘We’re not going back to the way we did things last year’: Dartmouth presses forward with in-person classes and move in
The College has separated itself from its peer institutions with its comparatively relaxed COVID-19 policies.
On Dec. 29, the College’s COVID-19 leadership team, led by interim provost David Kotz and executive vice president Rick Mills, announced that Dartmouth will move forward with in-person classes and move in despite surging COVID-19 cases across the nation due to the omicron variant.
In a video Q&A recorded on Jan. 5, Kotz and Mills stated that Dartmouth’s high vaccination rate, as well as the booster requirement, mask mandate and weekly testing, should work together to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and help permit in-person learning.
“We are beginning to recognize [COVID-19] isn’t going away,” Mills explained in an interview with The Dartmouth on Jan. 6. “This isn’t, ‘we’re going to wait it out,’ and we need to start to move forward on a path toward being able to operate with COVID being endemic rather than pandemic.”
According to Kotz, planning for residential operations and in-person learning while also “maintaining people’s physical and mental health” required “careful balance.” Kotz added that he hopes students will take agency and use their best judgment to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“We’re not going back to the way we did things last year, where we had really strict rules and we were kind of policing social gatherings,” Kotz said. “What we’re doing instead is asking students to be responsible, to make good choices, to socialize outdoors or in very small groups to avoid creating these situations where there might be a significant spread.”
The College’s push to maintain in-person instruction contrasts with the approaches of some peer institutions. Yale University delayed move in to Jan. 25, a week later than originally planned, and shifted the first two weeks of spring semester classes online. Cornell University opted not to delay move in but to push classes online for the first two weeks.
Kotz and Mills noted in an interview that although they “closely monitored” what peer institutions were doing, they decided that because of Dartmouth’s unique schedule, it would not make sense to delay the start date for courses and move in or to resume online instruction.
“Winter term is the shortest of the terms at Dartmouth — it’s really a nine-week term, not a 10-week term, so that already constrained things in terms of compressing content,” Mills said. “And the other piece was we weren’t sure that a delay of a week or two was going to get us past whatever we were going to encounter with [the omicron variant].”
Still, some peer institutions on quarter systems did choose to modify winter term plans due to the omicron variant. On Dec. 23, the University of Chicago announced that they would delay student arrival by one week to Jan. 10 and offer remote-only instruction for the first two weeks. On Dec. 20, Northwestern University also sent a message to students that all classes and extracurriculars will shift to a remote model for the first two weeks.
Kotz explained that mental health was a main factor in the College’s decision to prioritize in-person learning.
“Being in-person, both for learning and for out of the classroom experiences, is so important to the learning experience and student mental health — and frankly, to everyone’s mental health,” he said.
Kotz added that professors are fully prepared to move to online instruction in the case that many students contract COVID-19 and need to isolate.
“In a few cases, especially if there are a large number of students who are out, [professors] may decide, with so many people sick, let’s just go online for a week until people are better,” Kotz said. “I just ask everyone — students and faculty alike — to be flexible and adaptable at this time.”
Samantha Palermo ’24 said she is grateful for Dartmouth’s decision to maintain in-person classes, although she noted that one of her classes, PSYC 37, “Behavioral Neuroscience,” has moved fully online.
“I thought it was going to be two hours of Zoom lecture, but then I realized that the format was actually going to be some group work, some discussion, some problem solving, and I think that [the professor] is really doing a good job of transforming the class onto Zoom,” Palermo said.
According to the email sent to campus on Dec. 29, Dartmouth would offer grab-and-go dining for “at least the first two weeks of January” and ban College-sponsored indoor social gatherings to combat the spread of the virus as students return to campus. The email stated that “limited social gatherings” will be allowed.
Palermo said she had a mixed reaction when she learned of the College’s grab-and-go dining policy.
“Obviously it’s disappointing, especially living in McLaughlin — it’s about a 15 minute walk to the nearest dining location, and then a 15 minute walk back, so that adds time having to go all the way back versus being able to just grab a meal in the dining hall,” she said. “I understand why they did it, and if closing dining is what it takes to have in-person classes, I’m all for it, but I’m also really looking forward to being able to grab food with my friends again.”
Mills said that the College’s main intention with the policy was to encourage students to spread out around different locations on campus while eating.
“We just really wanted to encourage people to distribute around campus and not cluster together in one room or one area,” Mills said.
As for what constitutes a “limited social gathering,” Kotz explained that data from Dartmouth and other institutions has shown that the virus “tends to spread in social contexts” more than the classroom. However, he said students can gather for academic purposes or outdoors and stressed that the goal is not to “impose size constraints.”
“What I don't want people to think is that you can’t get together with a friend, play your favorite video game or watch a movie — you can hang out,” Kotz said. “What we don’t want is to have that become 30, 40, 50, a hundred people hanging out and drinking in close quarters because that’s obviously a risky context.”
On Dec. 31, Kotz and Mills sent a follow-up email announcement detailing the COVID-19 isolation protocol for winter term. According to the email, the isolation period upon a positive test result can be reduced from 10 to five days if the person receives a negative rapid antigen test result on the fifth day of isolation and symptoms improve. The protocol also stated that students will self-isolate in their dorm rooms if they contract COVID-19, regardless of whether they have a roommate.
Nicolás Macri ’24 said that the College’s plan to isolate students who contract COVID-19 in their dorm rooms is particularly “unfortunate” for those students’ roommates “because they’re sort of like sacrificial lambs.”
Macri added that he thinks isolation housing should have been an option, if not for the housing shortage on campus.
“I wouldn’t want to isolate in a room with another person who has [COVID-19] because I wouldn’t want to get myself sick,” he said. “I think it circles back to a recurrent issue — the College doesn't have enough housing to quarantine all these people in an independent place without resorting to using dorm rooms.”
During the Jan. 5 Q&A, Mills said while he recognized that the College’s new isolation policy may cause discomfort among students and their families, COVID-19 symptoms for the student age group typically involve upper respiratory infections similar to a “bad cold” or flu — diseases that have not prevented students from coming to campus in the past. He added that students with medical conditions will still be able to move to isolation housing in the event their roommate contracts the virus.
Kristine Suritis ’25 said that upon her arrival to campus on Jan. 3, her roommates in her two-room triple informed her that they had already been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Suritis said she immediately isolated herself from her roommates, who both ended up contracting the virus, and has been staying with a friend in the meantime.
“Ever since I got to campus, I basically had no exposure to [my roommates], and so I didn’t want to risk getting COVID by living in the same room where I’d probably be sure to get it — just because it’s so contagious,” Suritis said.
The College announced in an email on Dec. 13 that they would be requiring a negative pre-arrival PCR test result from its COVID-19 testing partner Vault Health. The announcement stated that students must get tested and send in their spit samples no later than Dec. 27.
Suritis said that she felt that the pre-arrival testing was done too early, and should have been done closer to students’ arrival dates to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“The whole arrival testing was so far in advance of people actually coming to campus, and was right before New Years — people go out for New Years,” she said. “It was right after Christmas or something that you were supposed to send the arrival test in, but I feel like a lot of people have the opportunity to get infected [between] the time they send the arrival tests [and] when they actually get [to campus].”
Palermo said that although she thinks guidelines about social gatherings have been a bit unclear, she has appreciated the increased communication and transparency from the College this term compared to the past.
“I feel like we have more reasoning behind the decision,” she said. “It’s less of a decision being handed down and more of, like, ‘here's our decision, and here’s why we made this decision.’”