CHESTERTOWN — Shuttered since last March when health experts declared a COVID-19 pandemic, Washington College plans to re-open its campus to students next week.
Access will continue to be restricted.
The only entrance for vehicular traffic will be via the main entrance on Washington Avenue.
Pedestrian traffic throughout campus will be permitted, though everyone on campus must wear a mask, indoors and outdoors.
Classes will start Feb. 1, a week later than originally scheduled, and instruction will be online only for the first half of the semester — when winter and flu season risk factors are at their peak.
A comprehensive 24-page student handbook, titled “Your ultimate guide to the 2021 spring semester,” outlines health and safety initiatives, accountability, athletics and recreation, campus life, dining services and much more.
“We’ve been planning for many months on how to bring students back to campus safely and we’ve learned a lot from how other institutions fared and frankly, we’ve had the luxury to learn from their mistakes,” Sarah Feyerherm, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, wrote in an email to the Kent County News.
“We’re really invested in the Chestertown community and the impact that our operations have on the community have been in the forefront as we’ve made our plans for the semester,” she said in the email.
She added, “We know that our students are critical to the livelihood of the town and they’ve given us every indication that they are as serious as we are about the safety measures that we all need to comply with in the coming months.”
Feyerherm said the Kent County Health Department’s assistance had been invaluable to the college in its planning and decision-making.
“We really appreciate what they’ve done for this community and for the college,” she said.
About 450 students will be living on campus and another 250 will be living off campus in the Chestertown area, according to Kelley Wallace, the college’s public and media relations director. She said 183 first-year students, most of them freshmen, will be on campus.
Wallace said the spring semester enrollment includes about 350 students who have opted for online learning at home.
As of press time Wednesday, Jan. 13, another 75 students were undecided.
Students are not required to come to campus or be physically present in classes.
Individual faculty will decide whether to shift to in-person instruction, based on campus conditions and faculty situation.
“Our number one priority is safety; our number two priority is effective teaching and learning for all students throughout the semester, wherever those students are and however they interact with the course learning experience,” according to a prepared statement.
Students living off campus initially will not be allowed to have guests or host indoor or outdoor gatherings, according to the handbook.
After Feb. 15, the college will re-evaluate whether or not small gatherings (limit of 10 people) may occur outdoors off-campus with proper social distancing and mask wearing, but indoor visitors will remain prohibited.
After spring break (March 25-28), the college will re-evaluate and if conditions allow, revise this policy to accommodate indoor visitors.
Students will move into their dorms in phases, beginning Tuesday, Jan. 19. Specific move-in dates have been assigned, allowing the college to space out move-ins appropriately and work in coordination with Health Services to administer COVID tests upon students’ arrival.
Students have been asked to quarantine at home for 14 days prior to arriving on campus to minimize the chance they test positive upon their return. And once they get here, they will be in quarantine until they receive the results of their second test — assuming it is negative.
Those who are living off-campus in Chestertown also will be subject to “gateway” testing.
All on-campus and off-campus students will be tested every two weeks throughout the semester, one of many safeguards the college has put in place to minimize the spread of what has proven to be a deadly virus.
With the ramped-up testing protocol, “We’re feeling confident that we can be successful,” Feyerherm said in a Jan. 5 email.
Because the college is dealing with a relatively small group of students — pre-COVID as many as 1,000 students could be housed on campus — and instruction is starting completely online, “We have the flexibility to adjust or pause the return to campus process based on test results,” Feyerherm said.
Resident halls, what used to be called dorms, have been “de-densified.” Every student will be in a single room and there will be minimal sharing of bathrooms and fixtures.
Many services on campus — use of the library, pool and fitness center, for example — will be by sign-up to manage occupancy and safety.
Students will be required to log in on an app every day and attest to any symptoms they may have.
“That allows us to respond to students immediately who might be symptomatic, ensure that they follow quarantine and isolation protocols, and make sure the rest of the campus and the town remain as safe as possible as well,” Feyerhrem said.
She said all returning students must sign a “Health Pledge” and Covid Conduct Code, which outlines specific guidance and repercussions for non-compliance.
Also, the college has launched a campaign with a focus on the “Better Together” theme, calling on everyone to do their part.
Feyerherm said: “We know that students won’t behave in a certain way simply because we tell them they must. They will do the right thing when they understand why their own behavior is important to the rest of the community and when they trust that others are doing the same. They truly want to make this semester work too.”
The college will publish a dashboard of test results from the gateway and surveillance programs, to be updated weekly. Monday through Friday, the dashboard will record any positive cases from the previous day. This information can be found on the college’s COVID-specific website, www.washcoll.edu/coronavirus.
Athletic Director Thad Moore said the plan is to allow for practice, beginning after the two-week quarantine period ends and run through the end of April. Only students who have been cleared by the athletic department may do so.
The Centennial Conference Presidents Council has canceled conference competition and championships for all fall and winter sports during the 2020-21 academic year. A decision about the possibility of Centennial spring sports competition will be evaluated later this month.
“We will be evaluating the option to schedule competition with other conference schools. This will be dependent upon conditions locally and regionally and will be guided by our alert level,” Moore said in a prepared statement.
The state Department of Health is restricting spectators to members of the campus community; this means only students, faculty or staff members with approval to be on campus.