Op-ed: Health and safety Skidmore's top priority
This op-ed appeared in the Jan. 30, 2021, issue of The Saratogian newspaper.
This past fall, Skidmore College brought over 2,200 of our students back to campus and to Saratoga Springs for an in-person, 12-week semester.
In all our planning, we made the health and safety of our campus and local communities our primary concern while providing the Skidmore education our students seek: in-person, highly engaged, transformative learning in small classes with dedicated faculty and staff. All students and on-campus employees were tested weekly for COVID-19 with PCR testing. Of over 38,000 tests performed, only 19 positive cases emerged.
Our students were dedicated to healthy practices, our classrooms were effectively equipped for safety, and our faculty were able to teach in person, virtually or through a combination of both. With careful planning, a low infection rate in the region and a bit of good fortune, we pulled off a remarkably successful fall semester, proving we know how to live, work and learn in safety amid this pandemic.
We are now welcoming our students back for the spring semester, and the circumstances are both the same and different. What is different, of course, is that the virus is present in Saratoga County in a way that would have been shocking in September. Positivity rates exceeded 10% a few weeks ago, and even the current lower rates of around 6% still far exceed what we saw in the fall.
Hospitalizations, ICU capacity and deaths from COVID are all strikingly higher than four months ago.
A student returns to Skidmore's campus, where the health and safety of students, employees and the broader community remain the top priority.
What remains the same is the essential set of rules our campus community has in place to combat this virus: First, wear a mask everywhere — indoors, outdoors, everywhere except in your own residence.
City residents who walk our campus must also be masked at all times. Second, keep six feet of distance between yourself and others. Third, avoid gatherings — even small ones — as they can quickly spread the virus. And fourth, wash your hands frequently.
This semester, we have modified our return-to-campus plan to limit initial infection rates as much as possible. We are exceeding state requirements by mandating that all students — even those coming from New York and contiguous states — be tested for COVID-19 within 72 hours prior to their return to campus. Every student will be tested again upon arrival to campus.
For the first two weeks of the semester, every student and on-campus employee will be tested twice per week instead of just once. In addition, we will start the semester in “safe shelter” mode, meaning students will largely shelter in their residence halls or apartments, leaving only to attend in-person academic classes. If case numbers remain low, we will seek to gradually expand social interactions.
But keeping our campus and surrounding communities as safe as possible will always be our priority.
I have told our students on several occasions that this COVID experience is their generation’s World War II or Great Depression: a defining historical challenge they will never forget and that they’ll be trying to make sense of for the rest of their lives. It has shown the terrible inequalities in our health care and socio-economic systems, and it has reinforced how interconnected and interdependent our world is.
That interconnectedness is our strength, and by taking care of each other we can find our way through this terrible trauma and emerge a stronger and more cohesive community. As the vaccines are distributed and the end of this challenging time comes into view, I hope we can continue to make the heroic choices necessary to keep ourselves and our neighbors safe and healthy.
Skidmore is committed to doing its part in this effort.
Marc C. Conner is president of Skidmore College.