Message to parents/guardians about this week
This week parents have been asking a variety of questions and Dean Arcelus wrote a message to them trying to answer the questions and with Communications developed an FAQ. He and I thought you might be wondering about the same questions so we thought it would be helpful to share the message with you.
Dear Parents and Guardians,
Many of you have reached out to express support and gratitude for the measures we are taking to mitigate the spread of COVID-19; or to raise questions and concerns about our recent move to Alert Level 3-Orange. I am writing to thank you and to offer some additional information in response to your questions. Given the volume of messages we have been receiving, as well as the work that needs to be done to support our students, I cannot respond to each of your emails personally, but I do hope that this letter—and the additional online FAQs we have prepared under the heading “Alert Level 3-Orange FAQs”—will be helpful in addressing the main concerns that have been raised.
First, I want to assure you that our goal is to bring the number of infections down as quickly as possible so that all of our students will be able to return to pursuing their passions in the classroom; in clubs and organizations; through athletics; and in studios, laboratories, and other performance spaces. At this very moment, I am waiting on Thursday's test results which should be coming in within the next few hours and my hope is that we can begin to relax restrictions outside as we go into the weekend.
Throughout the 2020-2021 academic year and up until this week, the positive cases at Conn never rose beyond a dozen at any one time, and we were able to prevent any significant spread through a multipronged strategy of regular testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. On Monday, twenty students went to Student Health Services with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and tested positive. These cases alerted us to the fact that more were likely coming. Some parents have asked why we are testing students twice per week given the vaccination level on our campus. They have suggested that we would never have known about this outbreak had it not been for our testing protocol. The truth is that students come to our health center because they have symptoms, which means they want and need to be tested. In other words, even without the twice-per-week regimen, we would have recognized the increase in cases and acted on it in the same way. Most of the positive students have symptoms and students are feeling quite sick. It is also worth noting that we are not alone in our protocol to test vaccinated students regularly--while I do not have an exhaustive list on hand, I know that Yale, and nearly all of the NESCAC institutions are testing their vaccinated students in a similar manner.
I have been in regular contact with the CT Department of Public Health (DPH) this week, and yesterday I had a lengthy meeting with a number of people on the team. They shared with me that, given the high number of initial symptomatic cases, the next step they would have recommended was to test the whole student body. The fact that we were already testing all our students allowed us to receive results quickly and avoid having the outbreak grow even larger. DPH also reinforced that the decisions we have made this week will give us the best possible path to lowering the positivity rate and returning to more normal operations soon, which, of course, is our goal.
Our decision to move to Alert Level 3-Orange enabled us to protect all members of our campus and local communities. While the risks to vaccinated students may be low, and we expect most of our positive students to recover in the next few days, Connecticut College is made up of three distinct communities—students, faculty and staff—with some who live in residence and others who do not. Ours is a close-knit campus, and we have an obligation to work together to protect all of those who study, teach and work here.
We anticipate that the number of new positive cases will drop over the course of the next several testing cycles. If this is the case then we can return to more normal operations and continue with the semester.
We are fortunate, too, that Conn is a highly vaccinated campus. Our student vaccination rate is roughly 99%, and our staff and faculty rate is roughly 95%. As I shared with your students, nearly all the individuals on our campus who tested positive this week are vaccinated. We understand the Delta variant of COVID-19 is much more contagious than previous variants, and vaccination does not prevent individuals from contracting the virus, developing symptoms and spreading it to others. The vaccination does, however, mitigate the impact of symptoms in many cases, and vaccinated individuals tend to recover more quickly.
Some parents have asked how it is possible that so many students were positive given that we have such a high vaccination rate. The Department of Public Health epidemiologists I spoke with yesterday offered the following hypothesis. The gatherings of students at a local bar and on campus in apartments and residence hall rooms were what DPH described as “high density high intensity” events: large numbers of people in overcrowded spaces speaking loudly in close proximity and likely not wearing a mask. Given that the crowds included symptomatic people, the virus spread to others at a level that overwhelmed the protective capacity of the vaccine. They likened the effect to coughing on another person for an extended period of time. This transmission started a chain reaction of people picking up the virus and then passing it on to others in more settings where masks were not being worn. The DPH medical staff saw it as similar to the situation witnessed in Provincetown, MA, in early July.
It’s important to note that, while we have been able to trace some of the case clusters to specific gatherings, the rise in cases cannot be attributed to one group of students. With this many positives among such a highly vaccinated population, it is likely that many students were exposed to COVID-19 in various social settings. Some parents have asked how we will be holding students accountable who caused this spread. You should know that, to ensure the integrity of the contact tracing process, information collected for that purpose is not used to adjudicate conduct cases. This has been the expectation of the DPH since last year. If, however, we learn of violations outside of the contact tracing process, we always follow-up through our Honor Code and conduct process. We are continuing to communicate with the student body as a whole that, as members of the college community, they have a responsibility to follow the protocols we have established to keep everyone healthy and safe. We ask you to reinforce with your student the need to follow the mask wearing and other COVID-19 guidance
I want to end by saying thank you, again, to those of you who have reached out. I value your perspective. None of the decisions that we have made were taken lightly. We are balancing many factors in conversation with the Department of Public Health; our partners at Hartford HealthCare; and our faculty, staff and student governing bodies. This is how we arrive at the best possible decisions for our campus. We know that this has been hard on many students and I want to emphasize that our faculty and staff are here to provide support and assistance. Our goal is to get back to Alert Level 1-Green, and to remain there for the rest of the academic year. This will require the collective efforts of our entire campus community. I am confident we can get there with your support.
Dean of Students