CHESTERTOWN — Students have been spotted crossing Washington Avenue at the Cater Walk, rushing to beat the traffic light after grabbing to-go meals at Hodson Hall.
Cars and SUVs with out-of-state license plates are starting to fill parking lots near Reid Hall, across from the Cullen dorms and behind what’s called the Western Shore.
And, in general, it seems a little less quiet “on the hill.”
Washington College is cautiously reopening after being shuttered for nearly 11 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing public health concerns.
Students have started to move back into their dorms in a staggered manner that will continue until Saturday.
The semester begins Monday, Feb. 1.
All instruction will be online until at least the end of spring break (March 25-28) and the campus will remain closed to the public, Sarah Feyerherm, the college’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students, told the Chestertown Mayor and Council at its Jan. 19 meeting.
Feyerherm, co-chair of the college’s Contingency Planning Committee that has been meeting since last March, estimated the on-campus population to be 400.
She said another 238 students have been approved to live off campus in the Chestertown area.
About 400 students have opted to stay home, which college officials anticipated, Feyerherm said.
The move-in process was spaced out over two weeks for the obvious reason. “We don’t want them all coming in at the same time,” Feyerherm told town officials.
“They come in. They get tested. That’s the first thing that happens; they get a PCR test (nasal swab). They move in and those students on campus will now be in quarantine,” she said.
All students — on campus and off campus — are subject to the gateway testing.
They will be tested a second time, 12 to 14 days later. In between the first and second test, the on-campus students are to remain in quarantine. They can go to the dining hall to get food and exercise outside — not in groups — but beyond that they are pretty limited in what they can do.
Feyerherm said those living off campus have been told they are not permitted to have gatherings with any students who are not of their household.
“We understand that we might not have full compliance with that, but we are certainly doing everything we can and our students have indicated to us so far that they understand the rules and that they intend to follow them,” she told the mayor and council.
For mass testing of its students, Washington College has a contract with the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Institute for Genome Sciences.
“They give us the tests, we ship them back and they give us the results. It’s supposed to be, right now, 24 to 48 hours,” Feyerherm told Mayor Chris Cerino when he asked if testing was being done by the local health department.
Feyerherm said the college through its Health Services has the capacity to test symptomatic students, with a turnaround time of 30 minutes.
She said each student will be tested every two weeks throughout the semester.
If a student tests positive, the college has quarantine and isolation space on campus if they cannot travel home safely.
If an off-campus student tests positive, they can isolate or quarantine in their residence if that is their preference.
Feyerherm said once the initial 12- to 14-day quarantine period passes, students will be able to do a little bit more on campus — use the pool or fitness center by sign-up, for example.
Also, athletes will be able to practice under the supervision of coaches and athletic trainers in a way that is safe, socially distant and progressive.
The college has a COVID-19 risk indicator dashboard where weekly results of its surveillance testing will be posted, including the number of tests administered and the number of positive cases.
Monday through Friday, the dashboard will record any positive cases from the previous day.
The dashboard can be found on the college’s COVID-specific website, www.washcoll.edu/coronavirus.
The operations of the college are guided by the Alert Level, which also appears on the COVID dashboard.
Feyerherm said a small group meets every day to review conditions on campus, in Kent County and the state, and the college’s ability to respond.
The Alert Level scales from green to yellow to orange to red, with conditions on campus becoming more restrictive moving toward red.
Feyerherm said currently the college is operating in yellow, which is due largely to community factors such as the overall positivity rate in Maryland and Kent County and the number of cases per 100,000.
As of press time Wednesday, Jan. 27, there had been one new COVID case among students, according to Kelley Wallace, the college’s public and media relations director.
According to a news release, college employees whose responsibilities require that they report to campus for work also will be included in the surveillance testing pool; the frequency of the testing will be determined by their level of interaction with students.
Students started moving back into their dorms oTuesday, Jan. 19, the same day as the council meeting.
Feyerherm said it was exciting to see them on campus.
“I know it’s still a little bit of a scary time but I know that our students are taking this really seriously. And the ones who want to come back really care, and they understand that their ability to stay here and for us to have success really hinges on everybody’s’ behavior and our commitment to the town of Chestertown as well,” Feyerherm told the mayor and council.
To reinforce the safety practices that remain in effect due to the virus, the spring semester reopening has been branded under a “Better Together” theme that encourages everyone to do their part: wear a mask, maintain social distance, stay home if sick and show up for COVID testing.
The campus is generally closed to visitors right now with the exception of deliveries, Feyerherm said when Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver asked if the library was open to the public.
Fourth Ward Councilwoman Meghan Efland asked how the community should handle concerns related to off-campus residences.
Feyerherm said anyone who sees or hears what they think is a violation — like a loud party, especially at night — should immediately call the Chestertown Police Department. The CPD will reach out to the college if assistance is needed, she said.
More general concerns about college students complying with town regulations can be directed to Zoning Administrator Kees de Mooy or Feyerherm.
Wrapping up the discussion, Cerino said the pandemic is a “conundrum” for a town that must weigh the well-being of its community against the economic, educational and cultural boons that a college provides.
Young people tend to be generally OK when they get the coronavirus, and they recover. Sometimes they have only mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.
“We want this to succeed,” Cerino told Feyerherm, “but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that we have concerns with that many younger kids in the community, that they might act as vectors to unintentionally give this virus to people that are more vulnerable than they are.”
He described it as a “crazy Catch-22 scenario” that is playing out on campuses across the country — colleges and universities wanting to provide good experiences for their students while also being mindful of how communities could be affected.