Among the many uncertainties the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the region has been how Keene State College can conduct classes and other operations on campus while still keeping not only students, faculty and staff safe, but also the city and region that host them. Underscoring that uncertainty most recently, the college announced in December it would delay the start of its spring semester until Feb. 15.
Since the pandemic’s onset, the stakes have been high from both perspectives. For Keene State, which considers its shared on-campus environment essential to the experience it provides, there was disappointment in the remote learning experience it was forced into providing last spring when the spread of COVID-19 shut down the campus and students were sent home for the remainder of the academic year. Failing to manage the coronavirus risk safely with students back could force another campus shutdown and further diminish the student experience — not to mention the bottom line of a financially challenged institution that relies on students fees and on-campus spending for a portion of its revenue.
For Keene, having students in residence is a significant contributor to economic activity, and restaurants and other establishments that are especially challenged by the ongoing social-distancing and other public-health precautions sorely need the boost the college community’s presence gives. Yet having students back also raises concerns about managing the coronavirus spread within the city.
Under President Melinda Treadwell, the college last summer developed a comprehensive plan to bring students back for the fall semester that, among other effective steps, included mandatory testing for the college community. In announcing the plan last summer, though, Treadwell made clear that safety was the top priority and that she would be guided by data and health experts in revising the plan as needed or even returning to a fully remote environment.
Keene State delivered on that pledge early in the fall semester when it became clear that stepped-up testing was necessary, and weekly testing of all students and staff replaced a more random, rotating schedule. And the fall results were encouraging, with very low test-positivity rates and effective quarantine and isolation measures swiftly implemented to tamp down any spread.
But the late fall surge that has since become a holiday tsunami of COVID cases nationally makes the return of students for the spring semester a significant concern. The college had already announced plans in November to cancel its spring break to enable a week’s delay to the semester’s start, until Jan. 25. With the number of infections on a rapid rise here in New Hampshire, in New England and elsewhere, it’s inescapable that the safest course is to wait sufficiently beyond the holidays to limit the risk vacationing students will be bringing the virus back with them to Keene. In announcing the further three-week delay to the semester’s start, Treadwell emphasized that she based her decision on scientific data and predictions for COVID-19 and reaffirmed that, despite the college’s strong commitment to providing its on-campus experience, the health and safety considerations were paramount.
That’s very much to her and the college’s ongoing credit. The further delay of the spring semester is surely a disappointment to students, whose college experience has already endured much disruption. And it’s a blow as well for a city whose economic vitality is under stress and could use the boost that returning students provide. But it will serve the longer-term interests of neither college nor city if a premature return of students to campus were to make the already worrying trends worse.