As Vermont begins to slowly open the spigots of commerce it’s important to prioritize what opens, and when, and how we can avoid the need to shutdown the economy once again should the virus’s infection rate return at worrying levels.

Any effort to essentially prioritize the rewiring of an economy is massively complex and inherently impossible to do in a way blessed by all affected. There are, however, several choices that have universal benefit and whose importancehas a bearing on the state beyond their numbers. One, in particular, is the state’s higher education system, with the key player being the University of Vermont.

Higher education is the second largest industry in the state, with UVM alone responsible for generating over a billion dollars through the state’s economy. The economic impact of their closure has been significant and the prospect of the schools not reopening in the fall is almost paralyzing.

Colleges and universities make their money by collecting tuition when the students arrive. If the schools are closed much of the tuition revenue disappears and can’t be made up through online classes. What happens then, particularly since Vermont’s higher ed community — with the exception of Middlebury College — doesn’t have the wealth to manage through without undue risk?

It’s almost May. A plan needs to be put into place that makes it clear these schools will be open in the fall and that protocols will be put into place to deal with every contingency, including, most importantly, plans to keep the students and the community safe.

To be successful will require dealing with what’s now become rote, which is the need to “test, trace and separate.”

The advantage we have in Chittenden County — with UVM, Champlain College and St. Michael’s — is that it could also be paired with the University of Vermont Medical Center, which could be responsible for the per student testing that would be required multiple times a year.

With this level testing the schools would know who was infected and through available technology [mobile apps] would be able to trace those contacted.

The testing and tracing are not simple things to do, but both are achievable. The challenge is that once a student has the disease, he or she has to be isolated from others, something that’s virtually impossible for colleges and universities whose students live in dormitories, or apartments.

We already know that if the testing, the tracing and the isolation efforts are put into place quickly that consequences in Vermont are manageable. We’ve done extraordinarily well with our response to the virus and, as a result, none of our hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. To the contrary, the system wasn’t taxed at all.

That same scenario could be the goal for our higher ed community as well. What needs to be found is a place that could be used to isolate any student found to be infected, the most obvious answer being a local hotel, since the patients/students could be in separate rooms yet still have access to computers, etc.

We can’t afford for our colleges to be shut down again. Particularly UVM. There’s no reason they need to be. Let’s put the plan in place and then let’s get the word out.

by Emerson Lynn

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