Keene State College President Melinda Treadwell, shown in this screenshot from a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday, says the college is hoping students will be able to finish in-person instruction before Thanksgiving.

Keene State College students will begin the fall semester with a week of online classes while they return to campus the week of Aug. 24, a week earlier than classes were originally scheduled to begin.

The shift means the college will be able to finish in-person instruction before Thanksgiving, and will allow students to finish classes and take final exams remotely, Keene State President Melinda Treadwell said Wednesday evening during a virtual town hall meeting with college alumni and community members.

During the 45-minute event held via Zoom, Treadwell outlined Keene State’s plans to reopen campus, including requiring all students, faculty and staff members to be tested for COVID-19 prior to or upon their arrival, mandating masks on campus and limiting class size to allow for physical distancing.

Keene State transitioned to remote instruction in mid-March due to concern over the COVID-19 pandemic and continued distance learning through the end of the school year.

Keene State is planning for the majority of students to move in from Aug. 24-26, according to the college’s reopening website. During that week, students can tune in to their classes and complete initial coursework on their own schedules, before in-person classes begin on Aug. 31.

But before then, all students, faculty and staff will be required to receive a negative COVID-19 test result. The college is working with Quest Diagnostics, which has locations throughout New England, to provide free testing to all students no more than seven days before they return to Keene.

On-campus testing for faculty and staff will take place starting the week of Aug. 17, according to Keene State’s reopening website. Faculty will be tested again within 10 days after students arrive, and students will be tested at least twice more in the first four to six weeks, Treadwell said.

During the school year, Keene State has contracts with ConvenientMD to analyze COVID-19 tests, with a guaranteed three- to five-day turnaround, Treadwell said. ConvenientMD doesn’t have the capacity to collect samples for these tests, though, so Fallon Ambulance Service of Quincy, Mass. will handle that aspect of the testing. The University of New Hampshire is also working to establish the system’s own lab to conduct COVID-19 testing, and Keene State will shift more of its testing needs there as the lab gets up and running.

“We’ve tried to build a lot of redundancy, knowing there’s some backlog [in testing],” Treadwell said. “And we’ve held these commercial vendors, who have been great partners with us so far, to some very specific terms, knowing that we’re going to need to make decisions in rapid time.”

When in-person classes do resume on Aug. 31, not all students will be in class every day. In order to ensure students can keep 6 feet of space between them, Keene State has reduced classroom capacities by about 60 percent, Treadwell said. That means students will rotate between in-person and online classes throughout the week.

Along with these sorts of on-campus measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Keene State is working with various community partners to keep both students and local residents safe and healthy, Treadwell said.

“We’ll be doing continued meetings with Cheshire Medical Center, the city of Keene, the emergency-response team, to be sure that in no way is Keene State creating any risk to the safety and well-being of the citizens of Keene or of greater Cheshire County,” she said.

Treadwell, who also helped lead a team of higher education officials to develop a reopening plan for all University System of New Hampshire schools, added that Keene State will return to on-campus classes only if she is confident that the college’s plan will protect students and the entire community.

“And that is our commitment,” Treadwell said. “If that is not something that I can ensure, then we will return to remote learning.”

Treadwell also addressed Keene State’s directive that everyone on campus, including visitors, must wear masks. The college has purchased several thousand cloth face coverings from two local businesses, Bulldog Design and Beeze Tees Screen Printing, and will provide all students, faculty and staff members with three masks apiece. Disposable masks will be available for visitors to campus, Treadwell said.

After the town hall, Treadwell spoke in favor of the city of Keene’s proposed mask ordinance at the City Council’s Planning, Licenses and Development Committee meeting. The ordinance is similar to laws being considered in other New Hampshire college towns, Treadwell added.

“If the city does pass this ordinance ... as Durham and Plymouth are considering, it will mean that there is a normative expectation in and around the city of Keene,” she said during the town hall meeting. “And so our students, from my perspective, will be in an environment where it’s just a normal practice. And those normal practices are washing your hands, wearing a mask and keeping physical distance. [Those] are the most important ways that we can protect ourselves and protect others.”

If students do not adhere to mask requirements and social-distancing mandates, either on of off campus, Treadwell said they will be subject to the college’s student conduct process, which follows a three-strike policy for code of conduct violations, and includes sanctions up to removal from the college.

“This has been an area of obsession, frankly, both for the [University System of New Hampshire] campuses and for our board of trustees, recognizing that it’s a place of significant risk,” she said. “... We think altogether we have a good plan, and we have the steps we need if we’re having problems with adherence. But it’s a big issue.”

This article has been updated to correct the name of the company that will collect samples for COVID-19 tests during the school year at Keene State. 

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.