Since the Fall of 2020, students have grown accustomed to the frequent updates to the COVID-19 policies designed to keep faculty, staff, and students safe.
When most students left campus for the summer last spring, the College relaxed the mask mandate, allowing for tested individuals to enter dorms and other buildings without wearing a mask.
Following a summer of low COVID-19 cases nationwide, the College’s COVID-19 team was cautiously optimistic about the policies on campus and considered continuing the summer mask policy. However, as cases increased nationally over the summer in addition to the increased incidence of the highly contagious Delta variant, the administration decided to continue masking and testing for the foreseeable future.
Most recently, on Nov. 1, the College lifted the mask requirement in residence halls and allowed for performance groups in certain situations to forgo mask-wearing, citing a lower-than-predicted caseload and an absence of serious cases.
Vice President for Administration and Chief Financial Officer Douglas Terp and Finance Analyst and Chief of Staff of the College Stephanie Sylvester sat down with The Colby Echo to discuss the COVID-19 trends of the semester.
They use two models to predict cases based on several factors and use the results combined with the experience on campus to inform the administration’s decisions about COVID-19 policy. Over the course of this semester, case frequency has been lower than predicted by these models which contributed to the administration’s decision to relax the masking protocols.
Sylvester leads the College’s COVID-19 response team which investigates each positive COVID-19 case and seeks to determine where, when, how, and from whom the disease was contracted. Sometimes, they can successfully trace a case back to a particular individual on campus. Most times, however, cases go unsolved.
Many cases among staff members originate from outside the community, oftentimes coming from the family of staff members who bring home the virus and transmit it to the employee.
Through their case-analysis system, Terp and Sylvester found that there is very little transmission in residence halls. If they do not see a spike in cases over the next few weeks, they said, they would consider recommending relaxing the restrictions further.
One next step could be removing the mask mandate in academic buildings, which may be a more complicated issue. Several academic departments have already announced their preference for requiring masks in class regardless of college-wide policies.
Terp also mentioned that some professors have concerns about a conflicting environment in which some classes require masks and some do not.
Terp and Sylvester stressed that no concrete plans have been laid out, and further protocol changes will depend on COVID-19 transmission both on and off-campus. It is critical that students wear masks when in public settings without knowing the vaccination status of those around them in order to reduce the risk that they will bring COVID-19 on campus, Terp told The Colby Echo.
Sylvester added that although students are generally complying with the testing policy, it is imperative that they get tested on their scheduled days. The administration’s ability to monitor COVID-19 levels on campus hinges on their ability to detect them through testing.
“Colby’s testing program was designed to optimize the chance of identifying COVID cases early,” she told The Colby Echo. “[This] allows the College to do contact tracing, ensure appropriate medical treatment, and reduce the likelihood of further infections through isolation/quarantine procedures.
“Given the nature of this virus,” she continued, “even a one-day delay in testing can significantly increase the potential for infecting other individuals, so it’s important to stick to your testing schedule and, if you miss one for some reason, to test early the next day.”
Terp also pointed out that the CDC is recommending booster shots for some eligible individuals.
“[The College] has not yet made a decision about mandating boosters,” he said. “But students and employees receiving booster shots will soon receive instructions outlining how to upload their documentation using the CoVerified app.”
The long-term effects of the new COVID-19 protocols are still being assessed. Although there were four cases identified on campus two days after the new protocols went into effect, it is not evident whether the two events are related. In the meantime, the administration will be closely monitoring cases and will notify the community of any further protocol changes.
~ Milo Lani-Caputo `23