Jan. 14 – Campus Update for Students

Dear Students,

I hope your first few days on campus are going well and that you have enjoyed being able to reconnect with classmates and begin a new set of classes. Thank you for your participation in our baseline testing program and for your patience as we navigate through this latest twist in the pandemic. I write today to provide you with an update.

Summary of Baseline Test Results

These are the results of the baseline testing program for students:

  • 50 students tested positive for COVID-19 at home during pre-arrival testing and have returned, or will return, to campus once cleared to do so
  • 29 students tested positive for COVID-19 during the Test #1 program (Jan. 9 – Jan. 11)
  • 16 students tested positive for COVID-19 during the Test #2 program (Jan. 13)
  • 5 students tested positive for COVID-19 during the Test #3 program (Jan. 14)

The overall positivity rate (positive results as a percent of all tests taken) across all three rounds of on-campus baseline student testing was 1.1%.

Employees also participated in the testing program offered Jan. 9-11 and 9 employees tested positive for COVID-19. 

As of this afternoon, we have 65 active COVID-19 cases on campus, representing 49 students and 16 employees. These 49 students are in isolation. While many of these individuals are experiencing symptoms, none are experiencing severe illness. You can see a summary of our testing results on the COVID-19 Cases webpage.

Managing Through Omicron

Health Considerations

The omicron variant is highly transmissible, even among those who are fully vaccinated and boosted. The relative risk of severe illness is low in a fully vaccinated and boosted 18-22 year-old population that is relatively healthy. However, as you may have heard from friends and family members who are fully vaccinated and boosted and have contracted COVID-19, the symptoms — even when mild — remain bothersome, disruptive, and unpleasant. Even without CDC isolation protocols, widespread campus illness of this nature would require significant operational support of students to minimize campus spread.

It is also important to consider that those who deliver the many aspects of the Bates student experience — our faculty and staff — range in age from 19 to 81. Many have young children at home, who are not yet eligible for a vaccine or not yet fully vaccinated, and some are taking care of elder loved ones at home. I share this as a reminder that for many members of our shared community, COVID-19 remains a very serious health concern.

Operational Considerations

I want to provide an overview of the factors that are involved in managing omicron on a residential campus, all of which inform our decision-making related to public health protocols.

As shared with you in December, CDC guidelines require individuals who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate, and we have a responsibility to do so with our students. While we have added to our isolation capacity in anticipation of omicron, we have a limited number of isolation beds available.

When a high number of students test positive, as we have experienced this week, this places a heavy strain on the staff who are needed to manage many different aspects of the situation, including, but not limited to: 

  • Notification to each positive student;
  • Contact tracing and close contact notification;
  • Meal delivery three times per day for students in isolation;
  • Medication and mail/package delivery to isolated students;
  • Daily check in by a staff member for students in isolation;
  • Symptoms check by a clinical staff member at Day 6 and beyond for students in isolation;
  • Tracking who is going into and leaving isolation each day; and
  • Turning over temporary isolation spaces to prepare for the next person who needs the isolation room. 

Over the past two years, we have been very fortunate to have staff who have been willing to step up repeatedly to take on these and other responsibilities above and beyond their assigned duties in order to manage through the pandemic and keep our campus safe. The very high transmissibility of omicron, however, creates an extra level of risk to organizational capacity, when large numbers of staff become infected at the same time and are unable to come to work, as we have seen with the airline industry and healthcare providers in recent weeks. With this in mind, we have asked all of our employees to take extra precautions during this omicron surge with basic public health practices, including masking, distancing, and handwashing. Students, we need you to help as well by being more rigorous with the masking and other public health measures that have served us so well this year. While omicron continues to spread, we need everyone to do their part if we want to be successful in maintaining the operational capacity to sustain the many dimensions of the on-campus, in-person experience.

Learning Experience Considerations

As we learned last year and this past fall, when a student is required to isolate, it can be disruptive to their learning experience since they are out of class for a number of days and need to make up work once they are cleared to leave isolation. This disruption is exacerbated for those courses with experiential components (i.e. dance, theater, art, labs) or in-class discussions and group projects. While we and individual faculty do their best to support students in keeping up with their courses, this is another reason why it is important to take steps to not get infected or infect others.

Isolation Housing

Some students have been in touch to ask questions about the isolation policies and protocols for students who test positive for COVID-19. You may learn more about these policies and protocols here, and questions about them should be directed to Brenna Callahan at Bates Health Services by emailing her at healthservices@bates.edu

Next Steps

Testing Next Week

We will begin our regular COVID-19 testing program at Muskie Archives on Tuesday, Jan 18. All students are required to test every Tuesday and Thursday until further notice. Please take a moment today to log into Garnet Gateway to verify your scheduled testing time. The COVID-19 Cases webpage will be updated on Wednesdays and Fridays once we have received all of the results from the Broad Institute. 

Classes

We will begin in-person classes on Tuesday, Jan. 18. As you know, masking in all classrooms remains in effect, just as was the case in fall semester.

Dining

For many students, eating together in Commons, where you can relax, enjoy a good meal, and hang out with friends, is one of the most valued aspects of life at Bates. We understand this, and want to get back to meals in Commons as soon as it is prudent to do so.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet. Omicron is still surging and we have a large number of cases on campus, with more positive cases coming in each testing period. Commons presents a particular challenge as the one place where hundreds of students are unmasked at once for prolonged periods of time, elevating the risk of transmission. This has the potential to place unsustainable strain on the operations associated with supporting students who test positive and to jeopardize other elements of the campus experience. For these reasons, we will continue with self-serve grab-n-go meals for the next two weeks. Please eat your meals in your residence hall. 

It is our hope and plan to return to in-person dining in Commons beginning Sunday, Jan. 30, provided that the results of the next several testing cycles indicate that it is safe to do so. We ask for your patience and cooperation as we get through these next two weeks. 

Public Health Policies

The following is a summary of where we currently stand with public health policies:

  • Masks continue to be required in all indoor common and public spaces, including the residence halls; (Note: Please be mindful that we have custodial staff who work in our residence halls, and residence life staff who both live and work in our residence halls. We ask that you be respectful of their health and well-being as you move around your residence halls.)
  • Suspension of universal residential access is lifted, effective immediately, and you may go into each other’s residence halls;
  • Students must be tested every Tuesday and Thursday at Muskie Archives;
  • Indoor co-curricular activities, including social programs, may not exceed 50 participants and may not involve food or drink at this time, since eating requires unmasking;
  • Indoor arts and athletic events may not have more than 50 audience members or spectators;
  • Only Bates students, faculty, staff, contractors, and vendors may enter buildings on campus; 
  • Guests and visitors are not permitted to be in buildings; and
  • Students should minimize their time off-campus, doing only what is absolutely necessary in the community, e.g., groceries, pharmacy, medical appointments.

I want to underscore the importance of masking and avoiding mass gatherings during this time of high levels of infection. I have been impressed and encouraged this week by students’ diligence in doing what is needed to help get us through the baseline testing and onboarding period, and I know none of us wants to take a step back, precipitated by large or unmasked gatherings.

Types of Masks

It is increasingly important not only to wear a mask, but to wear the right kind of mask and wear it correctly.

With this in mind, beginning with classes on Tuesday, Jan 18., all students must wear one of the following types of masks:

  • Surgical mask; 
  • KN95 mask; or
  • N95 mask.

Our clinical advisors continue to stress that the best mask is one that fits closely around the nose and mouth.

Masks must be worn in all indoor common and public spaces, including in residence halls, and we expect you to make sure that you always have an appropriate mask available. To assist with the transition to more effective masks, we have a limited supply of surgical masks available in Commons, and we distributed 25 surgical masks to each student as they got tested yesterday in Muskie Archives. The masks noted above can also be ordered online. Because the most effective masks are disposable, please be sure to discard masks properly and do your part to keep our campus clean. As a member of our community, it is important for everyone to comply with this requirement and to encourage fellow students to adhere to proper masking. 

Where to Direct Questions

If you have questions and are not sure to whom to direct such questions, please send them to studentaffairs@bates.edu and you will be connected to the right person to assist you. 

I know this has been a tough way to begin our semester together, but we are committed to bringing back to life those elements of the student experience as it is safe to do so. We have heard from some of you that you believe the college is not being strict enough with public health policies, and others have shared that you think we are being too strict. We know that the decisions made to keep a community of over 2,500 students, faculty, and staff healthy through the omicron wave will be different from those made for the wellbeing of an individual or a household.  

I deeply appreciate all that you are doing to adapt, once again, to changing circumstances; to keep yourselves, your peers, and our college community healthy; and to bring your energy, optimism, and flexibility to bear as we continue to navigate this together.

Sincerely,
Joshua McIntosh
Vice President for Campus Life