As Matthew White waited to move into his dorm room at Keene State College Wednesday morning, he balanced the excitement of returning to campus with the unease of coming back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m nervous because I don’t really know what it’s going to be like this semester,” White, a sophomore, said while sitting on a pile of his belongings outside the Pondside 3 residence hall. “But I’m also excited. … I just can’t wait to start.”
White, a journalism major from Enfield, Conn., was part of the first wave of Keene State students to move into on-campus residences Wednesday. Students were supposed to begin returning to campus Monday, but the school delayed dorm reopenings after about a quarter of students who are to live on campus had yet to receive the results of their mandatory COVID-19 tests by Sunday. About 60 percent of the college’s roughly 3,200 students live in one of Keene State’s 11 on-campus residence halls.
Keene State transitioned to fully remote instruction in mid-March due to concern over the COVID-19 pandemic and continued distance learning through the end of the school year.
The college still began classes remotely Monday, as previously planned, but all students, faculty and staff members must show that they have tested negative for COVID-19 within the past seven days before they are allowed on campus. Students living off campus have already begun moving back to Keene, and the rest of the students living on campus are scheduled to move in Saturday and Sunday. In-person classes are set to resume Monday.
As of Wednesday afternoon, two students who live out of state had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, Keene State President Melinda Treadwell said. Those students will remain at home until they test negative.
“We have had some positives, and that is exactly why we wanted to do this,” Treadwell said of the pre-testing requirement in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. “But the numbers have been, thankfully, very low for us. I’ll be surprised if we don’t see positives. But the numbers have been very, very low.”
Thus far, no faculty or staff members have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, Treadwell added.
Keene State plans to test all students, faculty and staff members twice more in the next two weeks. Anyone who tests positive will be required to quarantine, either by returning home or reporting to a designated space on campus, until they receive a negative test result.
“I think testing regularly and rapidly knowing when there’s a positive, and getting that positive individual into isolation and [providing] good supports while they recover, is going to be the most important part of this,” Treadwell said. “So it’s something that we’re working really diligently on, and that will be a key part of our work this year, is the testing and the verification of negative status so that we know our students, faculty and staff aren’t presenting a risk to one another or to the city.”
After these initial rounds of testing, Keene State will randomly test about 10 percent of its total population each week, Treadwell said. The college also plans to regularly test students, faculty and staff members who are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19, such as students who have off-campus jobs or commute to campus, for a total of about 25 percent of Keene State’s total population being tested each week.
Ultimately, Treadwell said, the college wants to test everyone on campus each week, which may become possible later in the semester after the University of New Hampshire launches its own lab capable of analyzing COVID-19 test samples. For now, Keene State is working with Quest Diagnostics for all of its pre-arrival testing.
Within the next two weeks, Keene State will launch an online dashboard to share the number of COVID-19 cases at the college, Treadwell added.
In addition to these testing protocols, Keene State has instituted a variety of health and safety measures designed to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 at the college. Dorm rooms have been limited to a maximum of two residents. Everyone on campus must wear a cloth face covering and maintain physical distancing.
Many courses will be offered both online and in person, so students who may have contracted COVID-19, or come into contact with someone who has, can attend while they are in isolation. And Keene State has altered its academic calendar so that no students will return to campus this semester after Thanksgiving, instead finishing classes and taking final exams remotely.
Keene State also has amended its student code of conduct to prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people. As students who live off campus have moved in over the past few weeks, Treadwell said she has not heard of any serious issues with this policy. She added that Keene State will not tolerate violations of health and safety measures designed to protect students and the entire community.
“This year, we’re going to be very serious and strict, and we will send students home,” Treadwell said.
And despite the challenges that may lie ahead, Treadwell added that she is excited to begin the new school year at Keene State.
“I am so excited that we are trying not only to open but to do so with very aggressive attention to safety and health for our community and the city,” she said. “I think we can do this. It’s going to take a community effort to be successful, but we’re going to give it our very best. And again, as I’ve said time and again, we will change our approach if we can’t. But at this point, I’m very excited, and our students are excited, and they’re trying to do what they can to help us be successful in remaining open.”
White, the sophomore moving into his dorm Wednesday, said he shares that enthusiasm.
“I’m not too worried right now because it’s just the beginning,” he said. “But with everyone coming in, I don’t know. Things might change. It might get to a point where we have to get sent back home or more precautions have to be taken. … For right now, though, I’m excited.”