A Question For Suresh Garimella

How are you reopening campus for in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Suresh Garimella    //    Volume 28,  Number 5   //    September/October 2020

Suresh Garimella, PhD, is the president of the University of Vermont, where he also holds an appointment as a professor of mechanical engineering.

Why is testing such an important aspect of reopening a campus for in-person classes safely? How is your university handling testing?

An effective, encompassing testing program should be the linchpin of any safe campus reopening plan. Without it, schools are essentially blind to the spread of the virus, and all the other steps they’re taking to keep their campuses safe—including limiting classroom capacity, investing in online education for hybrid teaching, banning athletic events and other large gatherings and re-engineering dining services and residence halls—are undercut. At the University of Vermont (UVM), our testing program, developed with public health and infectious disease experts on our medical school faculty and the Vermont Department of Public Health, is one of the most aggressive in the country. We are testing all students, including asymptomatic ones, early, often and at no cost to them. Before their arrival on campus, all 12,000 undergraduate, professional and graduates students self-administered Covid-19 tests in their homes, through our contract with Rutgers University and Vault Health. Those who tested positive stayed home. All students were tested again when they arrived on campus, then once a week for five weeks and subsequently at a rate based on analysis of the earlier testing data. Our partner for on-campus testing, the Harvard/MIT-affiliated Broad Institute, expects to return test results within 24 hours. Students who test positive will be placed in supportive isolation and their contacts rigorously traced. All employees working on campus can also access testing free of charge. Our testing program is not inexpensive, but we view it as a critical investment in a safe reopening.

How can campuses build a culture of shared responsibility to stay healthy? What is the Green and Gold Promise?

The key is promoting to students, faculty and staff, and indeed to our broader community, the idea that we are all in this together. We’re asking all UVM community members to hold themselves and others accountable for acting responsibly and are rolling out a public health campaign with guidance on how to do that in a caring and empathetic way. Finally, we’re leading from the top by making sure senior leaders consistently model safe behavior in both in-person and virtual settings. The Green and Gold Promise is a good example of how we’re promoting this sense of mutual responsibility. The promise began as an affirmation required of students that they engage in safe behaviors, urge other students to do the same and comply with testing and contact tracing protocols. Now it applies to all members of the UVM community, and faculty and staff must also sign a version of it.

How did you develop a phased-in approach to reopening your campus? What are the key benchmarks?

UVM’s reopening plan, created by a committee of administrators, faculty, students and staff called UVM Strong, with active input from our Board of Trustees, was developed methodically and deliberately to phase in progressively essential services in an orderly fashion. We began by asking directors, chairs, and other university leaders to submit a safety plan for their units that would include measures to keep the workspace safe and a recommended date for resuming in-person operations. The departmental plans became the basis for the university’s overarching reopening plan. The institutional plan, which the board approved on June 15, has several key benchmarks. The first was getting the university’s physical spaces ready, from classrooms to common spaces. Next was UVM’s large research enterprise (the university brought in a record $181 million in research funding last year). While COVID-19-oriented research labs continued work throughout the shutdown, other labs resumed their work beginning in early July, with stepped restart dates. Finally, we aimed for accommodating on-campus students, who began arriving at their residence halls in scheduled waves that starting August 14. Throughout the summer, our Center for Teaching and Learning worked with faculty to help them implement the mix of in-person and remote learning that will characterize our fall semester. The details of our six-phase plan can be found at www.uvm.edu/returntocampus/our-phased-approach.

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