University of Vermont students on Tuesday began their measured return to campus with more on their shoulders than the rigors of the classroom. They are being asked to do the right thing, to be responsible, to be safe so that their in-class learning can proceed and the university can resume a quasi-normal environment. Much hangs in the balance.

Skeptics have already expressed doubt the students will pay attention to the rules and are counting the minutes before the first of many outbreaks begins. They have reason to doubt. A number of colleges have already tried to bring their students back only to be forced to send them home after clusters of the COVID-19 virus began to show up and to multiply.

The New York Times Wednesday ran a story showing there have already been 26,000 identified cases at the more than 750 colleges and universities tallied, the implied premise being this was just the beginning, asking whether in-class learning was even possible given the pandemic’s on-going surge.

But it’s next to impossible to draw any precise conclusion about the information the newspaper gathered. The 26,000 cases would be less than a single percent if the total student count of almost 19 million students was used.

There is also no single means of reporting COVID-19 case numbers and it maters where schools are located and how close they are to population centers and to health care providers. Burlington is not Miami, or Los Angeles.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the COVID-19 tally hit 835, which prompted the school to send the students home. Among colleges, it was the second-highest number of cases reported. That number represents 2.7 percent of the university’s 30,000 students. For UVM to register on the same scale, we’d have to have 334 students test positive. Currently, we have one. At our peak, in early April, we hit 70 for the entire state.

Nothing is guaranteed. If we were to drop our guard, Vermont could be as vulnerable as anyone. But we have every reason to be as aggressive as we can be in reopening our schools and the economy. Our numbers are the nation’s lowest. We’re literally the safest place in the nation to be. We’ve done things correctly and it only makes sense to take advantage of our position.

We’ve gained that status because of how we responded; which is part leadership and part demographics/geography. [When dealing with pandemics there is an advantage to being rural.]

But we’re also highly vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic fallout. Tourism is one of the key pillars to our economy. So is higher education. We don’t have other parts of our economy that are strong enough to overcome what’s lost if those two disappear.

So, to the UVM students who are returning to campus this week: Please understand why it is that the Vermont community — writ large — will be paying particular attention to your conduct. You aren’t the only ones with skin in the game.

by Emerson Lynn

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